Researchers light the path of brain's feeding circuit in mice

A novel technique that uses a virus tagged with a green-glowing jellyfish protein has enabled scientists to visualize the feeding circuit in mice. The method may be useful in studies of other complex circuits in the brain. The findings are reported in the March 30 issue of Science by a team of researchers from The Rockefeller University, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Princeton University and the University of California at San Diego.

The scientists have shown that key neurons that play a role in regulating food intake and that respond to the hormone leptin also receive inputs from neurons in a number of other brain regions.

"Gross connections between neurons in the hypothalamus have been known for decades," says lead author Jeff DeFalco, Ph.D., a postdoctoral researcher in the Laboratory of Molecular Genetics at Rockefeller. "This new technique is exciting because, for the first time, we can identify circuits involving specific classes of neurons."

Leptin, a hormone that plays an important role in regulating food intake and body weight, is produced mainly by fat cells and signals nutritional information to the brain. In general, an increased amount of fat leads to the production of more leptin and a decreased amount of fat leads to a decreased amount of leptin. An increase or decrease in the level of leptin elicits a set of responses that act to return weight to the starting point. Studies in animals have shown that increased leptin reduces food intake and decreased leptin increases food intake. Leptin exerts these effects by changing the activity of a neural circuit in the brain.

To trace the brain's feeding circuit, the scientists inserted a green fluorescent protein (GFP) marker, which normally glows green, into a Pseudorabies virus. Pseudorabies virus is an animal virus that will spread from one nerve cell to the next only if they are in synaptic contact with one another. In the past, this virus has been used to trace neural circuits.

Contact: Joseph Bonner
Rockefeller University

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