Neural circuits for hedonic eating and eating disorders
Obesity is most commonly caused by excessive food intake and lack of physical activity. Nowadays, overconsumption of readily available and highly palatable food likely contributes to the growing rates of obesity worldwide. Binge eating disorder affects about 30% of obese individuals who seek body weight control. Palatable food containing sugar and fat is one of the most important risk factors for obesity with binge eating disorder. Interestingly, our recent studies indicate that the activation of an inhibitory neural circuit from zona incerta to paraventricular thalamus rapidly evokes binge-like eating of palatable food containing sugar and fat (Zhang & van den Pol, Science 2017). However, it remains unknown whether and how this circuit is involved in the pathological condition of eating disorders especially binge eating. Therefore, we are currently working on both zona incerta and paraventricular thalamus to answer the following questions:
Hypothalamic neurons and energy homeostasis
We are also interested in the role of hypothalamic neurons in regulating food intake and body weight. We recently found that arcuate nucleus dopamine neurons play orexigenic role in energy homeostasis (Zhang & van den Pol, Nature Neurosci. 2016). However, the neural circuits based on arcuate nucleus dopamine neurons remain largely unknown. Currently, our efforts are focused on the functional connections between arcuate dopamine neuron and other neuron types that may participate in the regulation of food intake and other behaviors. Especially, we will study whether and how hypothalamic dopamine neurons send projections to brain regions outside of hypothalamus for functional regulation.