Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor; Its Role in Obesity

This is a reprint from The Gathered View, courtesy of PWSA (USA).

Obesity and problems with overeating can be influenced by a number of factors in the brain. One such factor is brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which is involved in eating and energy regulation.

BDNF is found in the brain in the cortex, the hippocampus, and the basal forebrain and it helps brain cells survive and grow. Low levels of BDNF have been linked to depression, dementia, schizophrenia, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Alzheimer's Disease and Huntington's Disease.

Unger and colleagues have recently explored the role of BDNF in energy regulation and eating behaviors by giving normal mice injections of glucose (sugar) and measuring the amount of BDNF in a brain region that is know to be important for these processes, the Ventromedial Hypothalamus (VMH) (Selective Deletion of Bdnf in the Ventromedial and Dorsomedial Hypothalamus of Adult Mice Results in Hyperphagic Behavior and Obesity , The Journal of Neuroscience, 2007). They found that glucose leads to an increase in BDNF, indicating that when the body gets enough sugar and is full, it signals the brain to make BDNF.

Next, they wanted to see if taking BDNF out of an adult animal's brain could affect eating behaviors and obesity as it has been shown to do in fetal and very young mice. Removing BDNF from the VMH and another important brain region, the Dorsomedial Hypothalamus (DMH), caused them to eat more and become obese. Thus, BDNF normally signals when to stop eating. This study showed for the first time that BDNF in the adult brain is important for energy balance. If further studies can continue to confirm the role of BDNF in obesity and overeating problems, this factor may be added to the list of factors important for understanding and managing the weight and hyperphagia problems in individuals with PWS. The mechanisms of overeating involve (to name a few) leptin, insulin, melanocortins, noradrenaline, dopamine, serotonin, and the gut hormone ghrelin. There is likely not one singular factor or protein in the brain that causes the complex eating behaviors and subsequent complications seen in those with PWS, but the study of BDNF may be the next step in better understanding the complexity of energy regulation in PWS.   

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Topics: Research

Susan Hedstrom


Susan Hedstrom is the Executive Director for the Foundation for Prader-Willi Research. Passionate about finding treatments for PWS, Susan joined FPWR in 2009 shortly after her son, Jayden, was diagnosed with Prader-Willi Syndrome. Rather than accepting PWS as it has been defined, Susan has chosen to work with a team of pro-active and tireless individuals to accelerate PWS research in order to change the natural history of PWS. Inspired by her first FPWR conference and the team of researchers that were working to find answers for the syndrome, she hosted her first One SMALL Step walk in 2010 and began the development of the One SMALL Step walk program which now raises over $1.5 million a year for PWS research.

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