Understanding our food and drink

20 April 2020

20 April 2020

The struggle to maintain good nutritional habits during a lockdown can be real. But two separate pieces of research may provide keys to help improve our understanding and ability to deal with weight gain and alcohol consumption. 

Muriel Cozier

A research team from Baylor College of Medicine’s Huffington Center on Aging, in the US, have found a connection between the sense of smell and fat metabolism in studies carried out using the laboratory worm, C. elegans. The researchers were investigating whether neurons can actively send signals that, without affecting feeding habits, alters lipid metabolism. 

 ‘When we found a connection with the sense of smell, we were very surprised. We expected a link with taste or related to eating,’ the researchers said. While the connection between olfactory perception and fat metabolism isn’t new, the underlying mechanisms are not clear. 

Using C. elegans, which is much simpler than larger organisms, allowed the researchers to investigate how olfaction regulates bodily processes. The laboratory worm has three pairs of olfactory neurons that detect a variety of airborne scents. 

By testing several odours the researchers found that only certain scents dynamically regulate fat metabolism by interacting with specific olfactory neurons through specific receptors. Using a method called optogenetics, that uses light to activate or inhibit these neurons, the research team were able to promote the loss or gain of fat. The findings are relevant to observations that have been made between smell, fat metabolism and neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s.1

In separate research, a team from the Medical University of South Carolina, US, have found that deactivation of a stress-signalling system in the brain decreases binge drinking. A binge, as defined by the US’ National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, means drinking to the legal limit of intoxication within two hours. 

The study pinpoints an area of the brain known for motivation and emotion-related behaviours, which can be manipulated to reduce harmful levels of alcohol consumption. The so called opioid receptor system is well recognised in the area of addiction. Drugs such as morphine, heroin and oxycontin/oxycodone act on the receptor system, producing pleasurable effects that make these drugs addictive. 

However, the kappa opioid-receptor system, often referred to as the ‘anti-reward system,’ produces stress and discontent. When people drink and experience positive effects, that is partially due to pleasurable opioid receptors being activated. However, after they have finished drinking and nausea, headache and the stress of withdrawal start to set in, the kappa opioid receptor system has been activated. 

The study used a ‘binge-drinking mouse model’ allowing the mice to drink freely for four hours each night. After blocking the kappa opioid receptors, the team found that the mice consumed more moderate levels of alcohol. Therefore, blocking this receptor could have potential as a therapy to reduce binge drinking.2 

1Nature Communications: DOI: 10.1038/s41467-020-15296-8

2Neuropharmacology: DOI: 10.1016j.neuropharm.2020.107984

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