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Obesity (Silver Spring). 2008 Dec;16 Suppl 3:S11-22. doi: 10.1038/oby.2008.511.

Central and peripheral regulation of food intake and physical activity: pathways and genes.

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Neurobiology of Nutrition Laboratory, Pennington Biomedical Research Center, Louisiana State University System, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, USA.


A changing environment and lifestyle on the background of evolutionary engraved and perinatally imprinted physiological response patterns is the foremost explanation for the current obesity epidemic. However, it is not clear what the mechanisms are by which the modern environment overrides the physiological controls of appetite and homeostatic body-weight regulation. Food intake and energy expenditure are controlled by complex, redundant, and distributed neural systems involving thousands of genes and reflecting the fundamental biological importance of adequate nutrient supply and energy balance. There has been much progress in identifying the important role of hypothalamus and caudal brainstem in the various hormonal and neural mechanisms by which the brain informs itself about availability of ingested and stored nutrients and, in turn, generates behavioral, autonomic, and endocrine output. Some of the genes involved in this "homeostatic" regulator are crucial for energy balance as manifested in the well-known monogenic obesity models. However, it can be clearly demonstrated that much larger portions of the nervous system of animals and humans, including the cortex, basal ganglia, and the limbic system, are concerned with the procurement of food as a basic and evolutionarily conserved survival mechanism to defend the lower limits of adiposity. By forming representations and reward expectancies through processes of learning and memory, these systems evolved to engage powerful emotions for guaranteed supply with, and ingestion of, beneficial foods from a sparse and often hostile environment. They are now simply overwhelmed with an abundance of food and food cues no longer contested by predators and interrupted by famines. The anatomy, chemistry, and functions of these elaborate neural systems and their interactions with the "homeostatic" regulator in the hypothalamus are poorly understood, and many of the genes involved are either unknown or not well characterized. This is regrettable because these systems are directly and primarily involved in the interactions of the modern environment and lifestyle with the human body. They are no less "physiological" than metabolic-regulatory mechanisms that have attracted most of the research during the past 15 years.

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