The brain actively takes sugar from the blood, German scientists have found, in a study that could lead to advances in the treatment of diabetes and obesity.
Our brain cells – which have the highest sugar consumption of all organs – control our metabolism and feelings of hunger more than previously believed, according to researchers at the Technical University of Munich.
Prior to the research, published in the journal Cell, most scientists believed the movement of sugar into the brain was a purely passive process.
But the findings suggest that brain cells could be more important in adjusting metabolism than previously suspected, a conclusion that could therefore pave the way for a potential cure for diabetes and obesity.
Matthias Tschöp, Director of the Division of Metabolic Diseases, said: “Our results showed for the first time that essential metabolic and behavioral processes are not regulated via neuronal cells alone and that other cell types in the brain, such as astrocytes, play a crucial role.
“This represents a paradigm shift and could help explain why it has been so difficult to find sufficiently efficient and safe medicines for diabetes and obesity until now.”
Using positron emission tomography, a special imaging technique, researchers were able to show that hormones such as insulin and leptin act specifically on these brain cells to regulate sugar intake into the brain – like a “sugar switch”.
The researchers found missing insulin receptors on the surface of astrocytes resulted in less activity in neurons that curb food uptake as part of the brain’s regulation of our metabolisms.
According to the scientists, further studies will now be carried out to adjust the old model of purely neural control of food intake and metabolism to incorporate a concept wherein astrocytes in the brain also play a crucial role.
Better understanding of the interaction between cells will point to new ways of curbing sugar addiction and providing better treatment for the growing problems of obesity and diabetes, according to the researchers.
Cristina García-Cáceres, neuro-biologist at the Helmholtz Diabetes Centre in Munich and the study’s lead author, said: “We have a lot of work ahead of us, but at least now we have a better idea where to look.”
A report by the World Health Organisation (WHO) revealed in April that the number of people with diabetes has quadrupled around the world over the last 35 years.
The WHO said 150 countries had set the “ambitious target” of reducing non-communicable diseases, such as diabetes, by one third for the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development goals.