Nerve chemical found to reduce craving for food Study may lead to clues about eating disorders

September 13, 1996|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

Tweezing apart the brain mechanisms that control hunger, scientists have shown that a newly discovered nerve chemical sharply reduces appetite, prompting even starved rats to turn their noses away from food.

Though the experiments involved lab animals, the work by researchers at the Scripps Research Institute and the Salk Institute may partially explain the biology of human eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa, in which someone who desperately needs food shuns it.

The researchers speculate that sustained stress could prompt the brain to produce an excess of the chemical, called urocortin, making it easy to avoid eating. On the other hand, a shortage of urocortin in the brain might prompt a heightened appetite that could lead to obesity.

"If we get to understand what the mechanism is of how [urocortin] works, then it's possibly going to be helpful in the management of eating disorders," said Dr. Mariarosa Spina, the study's lead author. The work is being published today in the journal Science.

It is possible that scientists could develop a drug that blocks the action of urocortin or an analog that mimics it, the researchers said. This might help alleviate an eating disorder by compensating for either an excess or shortage of the nerve chemical.

Urocortin is closely related to another long-studied brain chemical called corticotropin-releasing factor, which helps mediate many responses to stress, including the reduction of appetite, the raising of blood pressure and the unleashing of the adrenalin that propels "fight or flight" responses.

By contrast, urocortin seems largely limited to reducing appetite, which makes it especially attractive as a basis for drug development.

The researchers have not yet studied whether the human brain produces urocortin, but they have indirect evidence that it does.

Pub Date: 9/13/96

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