Treating obesity and diabetes by tricking the brain

Tuesday, 09 July, 2019

Treating obesity and diabetes by tricking the brain

Presenting the annual public lecture at Physiology 2019 this week, Professor Lora Heisler revealed a way to harness the target of the brain chemical serotonin to combat the obesity (and related diabetes) epidemic.

Obesity is a major global healthcare challenge, causing impairments in multiple systems throughout the body and predisposing people to illnesses such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes and cancer. The typical sedentary lifestyle of the Western world means we now live in an ‘obesogenic environment’, where it’s easier than ever to gain weight.

The good news, according to Prof Heisler, is that parts of the brain called the hypothalamus and hindbrain — regions involved in many body functions — can be stimulated to trick the brain to register that food has been consumed when it hasn’t. By targeting neurons in these regions, thus ‘switching them on’, scientists can cause a reduction in appetite while increasing the feeling of fullness. Activation of these receptors in the brain’s reward centres has been found to reduce the consumption of all types of food, including sweet and sugary substances.

The US has already exploited this discovery with the medication lorcaserin, which is being marketed as a diet pill and may make its way to the UK following appropriate regulatory review. Prof Heisler and her team at the University of Aberdeen have been delving into the science of how lorcaserin works, and recently discovered it can also be used to treat type 2 diabetes.

While every other diabetes medication acts at peripheral tissues, lorcaserin targets the brain; here, it stimulates neurons in a matter that mimics the results of diabetes medications, reducing glucose production and increasing insulin action. The medication has already shown therapeutic benefits for diabetes patients, which is especially important because many long-term diabetes patients develop a tolerance to their medication.

These promising findings, as outlined in Prof Heisler’s lecture, thus indicate that lorcaserin may be a new weapon in the arsenal against diabetes as well as obesity.

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