Researchers find neuron behind fatal anorexia, solution in high-fat diet

Credit: CC0 Public Domain

Researchers have long known that many people (mostly women) suffering from anorexia face a high risk of death. But, until now, they didn't know what causes the eating disorder to turn fatal.

In a research letter published in the Oct. 26 edition of Nature Metabolism, Yale researchers describe a specific neuron that appears to play an important role in whether anorexia becomes deadly.

They also discovered a potential treatment: a .

"Over the last 25 years, our work has focused on understanding what drives hunger," said author Tamas Horvath, the Jean and David W. Wallace Professor of Comparative Medicine and professor of neuroscience and of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive sciences. "We wondered if neurons in the brain which are working at a high level when someone is dieting could be participating in some aspect of the disease."

For the study, the researchers looked at a specific neuron that is active during , called the hypothalamic agouti-related peptide (AgRP), in food-restricted, exercising mice. They found a between the workings of the neuron and the animals' likelihood of dying. In fact, all animals on a food-restricted, high-exercise diet whose AgRP neurons were inhibited died within 72 hours.

"If we diminished these neurons in animals who ate little and exercised compulsively, they died," said Horvath, who is also chair of the Department of Comparative Medicine and director of the Yale Program in Integrative Cell Signaling and Neurobiology of Metabolism.

Lowering levels of these neurons proved fatal, Horvath said, because they are needed to help the body access alternative forms of fuel—namely fat—in the absence of eating, combined with intense exercise. "If these don't function, you are not able to mobilize fuels from fat stores," he said.

But when they provided fatty food to the mice with decreased AgRP activity they found that "death [was] completely prevented." This finding could suggest a new tactic for treating anorexia in people, Horvath said. "If you are a person dying from anorexia and eat foods containing elevated fat, you may survive," he said.

Anorexia nervosa is an that affects mainly adolescent girls. Those with the disorder severely restrict their eating, fear gaining weight, and exercise compulsively. Some 20 million women suffer from anorexia, which has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.

Horvath and other Yale researchers are now extending their research to identify which fats may work best in preventing from becoming lethal. "Many people with this disorder are in the care of medical professionals, and there's an opportunity to bring these findings to the human population," he said.

Explore further

Of brains and bones: How hunger neurons control bone mass

More information: Maria Consolata Miletta et al. AgRP neurons control compulsive exercise and survival in an activity-based anorexia model, Nature Metabolism (2020). DOI: 10.1038/s42255-020-00300-8
Journal information: Nature Metabolism

Provided by Yale University
Citation: Researchers find neuron behind fatal anorexia, solution in high-fat diet (2020, October 29) retrieved 4 December 2020 from
This document is subject to copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study or research, no part may be reproduced without the written permission. The content is provided for information purposes only.

Feedback to editors

User comments