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When it comes to treating eating disorders and fighting obesity, scientists know that the brain holds the keys to finding answers to the most intriguing questions. Now, with the help of a new grant from the National Institutes of Health, a Florida State University researcher is studying the occurrences in specific regions of the brain that motivate us to seek food and the impact of these processes on eating habits and weight gain.

Xiaobing Zhang, assistant professor at the FSU Program in Neuroscience and the Department of Psychologyreceived a five-year, $1.8 million grant from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, part of the National Institutes of Health, to study how certain neural circuits in the brain regulate eating behaviors.

“From previous studies, we know that food intake is tightly controlled by the brain based on its ability to sense the body’s metabolic signals and initiate motivated food consumption,” Zhang said. “However, it is still largely unknown how neuroplasticity and brain dysfunction are implicated in the development of obesity and eating disorders due to complex neural pathways allowing the brain to integrate emotional, reward The funded work is important not only for understanding central serotonin signaling in the control of eating, but also for revealing a potential involvement of serotonin dysfunction in the development of obesity and overeating. .

The project focuses on identifying novel serotonin pathways in the regulation of eating and other motivated behaviors. Serotonin, a neurotransmitter produced by specific neurons in the raphe nucleus of the brainstem, spreads to many regions of the brain, including the cortex, limbic system, thalamus, and hypothalamus. This allows it to regulate the critical functions of emotion, motivation and behavior.

“We are very pleased with this NIH award to support our research to further investigate neural signaling that regulates food intake by targeting the incerta area and the paraventricular thalamus, two brain areas with inhibitory neural connections for control. diet revealed by our previous findings,” Zhang said. . “We hope to understand how and when these pathways are activated for feeding control. More importantly, we hope to reveal how these pathways are impaired by a chronic high-fat diet that leads to overeating and obesity.

Obesity has become a global health threat due to the increased risk of obesity-related complications, including heart disease, diabetes, and end-stage kidney disease. In the United States, the age-adjusted prevalence of obesity among adults rose to more than 40% in 2018, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Experts warn that the high prevalence of obese and overweight people is largely attributable to the widespread overconsumption of readily available, energy-dense foods high in fat and sugar.

Zhang is confident that this project will help scientists fight obesity by developing a clearer understanding of what is going on in the serotonin systems in the brain that impact different eating behaviors, especially when neurological systems don’t. not work as expected.

Eating behavior and energy balance studies are a historic strength at FSU,” said Frank Johnson, chair of the psychology department. “It’s exciting to see Xiaobing build on this tradition, taking his research and our mission to educate students in important new directions.”

Lisa Eckel, director of the FSU program in neuroscience, said Zhang’s new NIH grant will use electrophysiological techniques to record the electrical activity of neurons and optogenetic techniques to monitor neuron activity using light. to better understand the serotonergic circuits that control food intake and how changes in the activity of these circuits can influence motivation to consume appetizing foods and promote weight gain.

“This project highlights some of the important translational research conducted by members of the neuroscience program,” Eckel said. “This groundbreaking work should reveal how dysfunctional serotonin signaling promotes overeating and unhealthy weight gain, with the long-term goal of identifying new pharmacological targets for the treatment of eating disorders and obesity. .”