Brain Protein Identified as Potential Obesity Contributor

It’s not all in your head, but one brain protein could be adding to your weight loss struggle.

If you’ve ever thought that the battle with your waistline is all in your head, you just might be right. In an article published Jan. 8 in The Journal of Neuroscience, researchers at Tufts University report that when a particular brain protein called brain-derived neurotropic factor, or BDNF, is low you are prone to overeating and obesity.

The finding was discovered while the researchers were looking into why certain medications prescribed to control epilepsy and other conditions, such a diabetic neuropathy and pain from shingles, caused weight gain and obesity in patients. While looking specifically at gabapentin and pregabalin, the researchers discovered that these drugs inhibit BDNF.

How It Works

Previous research had shown that BDNF plays a significant role in suppressing the appetite. BDNF is vital to not only suppressing the appetite, but also assists in regulating body weight in adults. If your BDNF is low, then your brain has issues regulating both your appetite and weight. The lower your BDNF levels, the more weight you gain.

BDNF is present in two areas of the brain and both areas must have adequate levels to control both appetite and maintain weight. The researchers built on this by finding the key that unlocks the mystery of why BDNF fails to suppress the appetite in certain individuals.

The antiepileptic drugs studied, particularly gabapentin, blocks another protein that BDNF needs to suppress your appetite. This protein, alpha2/delta-1, is vital to BDNF’s ability to control your urge to eat. Gabapentin and drugs like it inhibit the alpha2/delta-1 protein causing people who take these medications to overeat and eventually become obese.

brain protein affects obesityWhat They Did

Using mice, the Tufts researchers gave them gabapentin to block the alpha2/delta-1 protein in the brain causing their BDNF levels to fall. Over the course of a week, the mice ate 39 percent more food and gained a significant amount of weight when compared to mice whose protein levels were at normal levels. Once the mice were off the drug and their alpha2/delta-1 levels returned to normal, they lost weight and their food intake decreased 15-20%.

Aside from the weight gain and increased food intake, the mice also showed hyperglycemia (increased blood sugar) and a deficiency in metabolizing glucose. Both of these are precursors to diabetes. Once the alpha2/delta-1 protein levels returned to normal, so did the blood sugar levels of the mice.

What It Means

Given that the medications studied are used by many patients, these findings open new avenues for studying how the brain works in regarding appetite suppression. Researchers now know how these drugs affect the proteins the brain uses to regulate appetite. They can now use these findings to develop ways to counteract the effects of these drugs on the brain’s satiety center. Given the news that the alpha2/delta-1 protein is so important to BDNF function, it gives researchers a much needed insight into the mysteries of how the brain processes hunger signals and weight maintenance.

So if you’re facing a scale that only goes up and you want to dive in a box of donuts; move the box and don’t despair. Researchers are unlocking the secrets to your brain’s ability to regulate your appetite and help you get off the food and back to a healthy weight.