Fat cells can communicate with the brain via an invisible nerve-cell superhighway, which may promote obesity. 13/09/2022

Fat cells can communicate with the brain via an invisible nerve-cell superhighway, which may promote obesity. 13/09/2022

Fat cells can communicate with the brain via an invisible nerve-cell superhighway, which may promote obesity. 13/09/2022
SEM image of fat tissue with fat cells (adipocytes, red yellow) surrounded by fine strands of supportive connective tissue. Adipocytes are the largest cells in the human body, measuring between 100 and 120 microns in diameter. A single lipid (fat or oil) droplet makes up nearly the entire volume of each fat cell.

At least in mice, scientists have discovered a previously unknown communication pathway that allows fat cells to directly “talk” to the brain.

The team used a technique that made the tissue of the animals transparent to visualize these hidden sensory nerve pathways. The mice burned more fat after the researchers severed the connection. If the findings can be replicated in humans, disrupting this communication network could one day aid in the treatment of obesity.

Researchers previously thought that the brain used the sympathetic nervous system to tell the body to burn more fat; this branch of the nervous system directs the “fight or flight” response and uses fat as a key fuel source for the body’s organs. In other words, scientists already knew how neurons in the brain sent one-way information to fat. However, scientists believed that communication from fat to brain was less direct, with fat sending messages to the brain by releasing hormones into the bloodstream, according to study lead author Li Ye, a neuroscientist at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California.

The new study discovered that fat sends messages to the brain via sensory nerve cells, or neurons, known as the dorsal root ganglia. The dorsal root ganglia (DRG), whose cell bodies are near the spinal cord, extend long wires into the peripheral organs, receiving sensory information from the body and sending it to the brain via the spinal cord.

The DRG has long been known to ferry information from skin and muscle to the brain, but the new study is the first to show that the DRG also receives and transmits sensory information from fat. Although researchers were aware that the DRG projected into fat tissue in rats and hamsters, they had not been able to determine exactly what information the neurons were transmitting due to the difficulty of visualizing the neurons across long distances and manipulating the DRG without also affecting the sympathetic branch of the nervous system. In this study, researchers overcame both of these challenges.

Ye and his colleagues fluorescently labeled the DRG neurons that extend into fat tissue in this study. They could see the paths of the DRGs from their origins near the spinal cord all the way to areas of fat, also known as fat pads, beneath the skin using a system they developed previously(opens in new tab) that renders animal tissues transparent.

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