A gut-to-brain circuit drives sugar preference and may explain sugar cravings

A gut-to-brain circuit drives sugar preference and may explain sugar cravings

By visualizing brain activity when the rodents consumed sugar versus artificial sweetener or water, the researchers for the first time identified the brain region that responds solely to sugar: the caudal nucleus of the solitary tract (cNST). Found in the brain stem, separate from where mice process taste, the cNST is a hub for information about the state of the body. The path to the cNST, the team determined, begins in the lining of the intestine. There, sensor molecules spark a signal that travels via the vagus nerve, which provides a direct line of information from the intestines to the brain. This gut-to-brain circuit favors one form of sugar: glucose and similar molecules. It ignores artificial sweeteners -- perhaps explaining why these additives can't seem to fully replicate sugar's appeal. It also overlooks some other types of sugar, most notably fructose, which is found in fruit. Glucose is a source of energy for all living things. That could explain why the system's specificity for the molecule evolved, say study lead authors Hwei Ee Tan and Alexander Sisti, who are graduate students in Zuker's lab. Previously, scientists speculated that sugar's energy content, or calories, explained its appeal, since many artificial sweeteners lack calories. However, Zuker's study showed this is not the case, since calorie-free, glucose-like molecules can also activate the gut-to-brain sugar-sensing pathway. To better understand how the brain's strong preference for sugar develops, his group is now studying the connections between this gut-brain sugar circuit and other brain systems, like those involved in reward, feeding, and emotions. Although his studies are in mice, Zuker believes that essentially the same glucose-sensing pathway exists in humans. "Uncovering this circuit helps explain how sugar directly impacts our brain to drive consumption," he says. "It also exposes new potential targets and opportunities for strategies to help curtail our insatiable appetite for sugar." Source: EurekAlert Journal reference: Hwei-Ee Tan et al. "The Gut-Brain Axis Mediates Sugar Preference." Nature. Published online April 15, 2020. doi: 10.1038/s41586-020-2199-7



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