A new study by researchers from the University of Copenhagen in Denmark and the University of Iowa in the US have identified a hormone to which brain cells respond, and how their interaction enables the regulation of sugar intake and preference for sweet taste.

The study, which was published in Cell Metabolism, concentrated on the actions of a hormone known as fibroblast growth factor 21 or FGF21, which is said to play a role in insulin sensitivity, energy balance, and body weight control. "This is the first study that's really identified where this hormone is acting in the brain and that has provided some very cool insights to how it's regulating sugar intake," said Matthew Potthoff, co-author of the study.

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Identifying Key Brain Cells

Understanding the biological mechanisms that control sugar intake and preference for sweet taste could have important implications for managing and preventing these health problems. Although it was known that FGF21 acted in the brain, identifying the exact cellular targets was complicated by the fact that the hormone's receptor is expressed at very low levels and is therefore difficult to "see."

Using various techniques, the researchers were able to precisely identify which cells express the receptor for FGF21. By investigating these cells, the study shows that FGF21 targets "glutamatergic" neurons in the brain to lower sugar intake and sweet taste preference.

Potential for Development of New Drugs

The researchers also showed that FGF21's action on specific neurons in the ventromedial hypothalamus reduce sugar intake by enhancing the neurons' sensitivity to glucose. Several drugs based on a modified form of FGF21 are already being tested as treatments for obesity and diabetes.

The new findings could potentially lead to new drugs that more precisely target the different behaviors controlled by FGF21, which might help to control how much sugar a person eats, the authors said.

(With inputs from agencies)