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By illuminating key nerve cells that regulate feeding behavior, researchers at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Janelia Farm Research Campus have discovered how to prod mice to eat voraciously—or sparingly—thanks to a radiant new technology.

The scientists created mice whose brain cells can be activated with a beam of light. Hitting one type of neuron drives the animals to their food bowls within minutes, whereas targeting a different type makes them abstain, the researchers found. The findings were published online January 5, 2011, in the journal Nature Neuroscience.

“This would be like a 200-pound adult losing 14 pounds in just one day, simply by activating a specific neuron population in their brain.”
Scott M. Sternson

“Eating and hunger and the motivations associated with food—they’re all derived from the activity of neurons in the brain,” says lead investigator Scott Sternson, a group leader at Janelia Farm. By unraveling the complex circuits involved in eating, he adds, researchers might better understand why some people eat too much or too little.

Compared with, say, a reflexive shiver, sneeze, or muscle twitch, feeding behaviors are quite complex. They are influenced by a variety of motivations and sensory stimuli—from food smells to body temperature—and require perceptual and motor skills. Unsurprisingly, dozens of brain regions and hundreds of cell types are involved in eating.

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