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Issue 482, 20 May 2002

Testing your reflexes until you've had enough

Can't squeeze in another mouthful? Feeling full is all a question of reflexes, according to Leeds biomedical researcher Dr David Lewis (pictured left). He hopes to open the way for new therapies to treat obesity, by looking at how, why and when our brain tells our stomach it's had enough.

The basic reflexes controlling eating are centred in the hindbrain – the lower part of the brain stem, where it joins the spinal cord. Leeds is the only place carrying out research into feeding reflexes within the hindbrain.

The simple connection between feeling full and stopping eating is a purely reflex action, as opposed to behavioural responses – what we like or don't like, or when we choose to eat – which are controlled by appetite centres in the higher part of the brain.

Dr Lewis said: "Neurones in the stomach are sensitive to both acid and nutrients, and when food enters the stomach and digestion begins, these nerve cells communicate with the hindbrain, with messages sent back and forth between the stomach and the brain.

"I'm looking at how specific meal-related stimuli, such as distention of the stomach or the presence of acid, affect individual hindbrain neurones which form part of the feeding reflexes."

The research has particular implications for obesity, now a major health problem in the Western world with over 30% of the UK population classified as obese.

"Obesity is caused by taking in more food than the body requires," said Dr Lewis. "The hindbrain is somehow shut down or modulated, making the reflex to stop feeding no longer effective.

"If we can increase our understanding of the neural pathways by which the brain controls food intake and energy expenditure, it may lead to the development of new therapies for this disorder."

Dr Lewis' research is funded by the Royal Society.

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