Heike Muenzberg-Gruening

Heike Muenzberg-Gruening

A professor at Pennington Biomedical Research Center is leading a new study to investigate how the brain and body fat communicate to control the production and release of leptin, a feedback hormone that helps regulate appetite and the number of calories burned.

Heike Muenzberg-Gruening, director of the Central Leptin Signaling Laboratory at Pennington, is the principal investigator on this National Institutes of Health’s project, a new effort focusing on interoception, the ways in which organisms sense and regulate signals within their bodies. 

“Fat tissue plays an important role in our health. It stores and breaks down fat but also secretes hormones, like leptin, to impact energy expenditure, food intake and blood sugar levels,” Muenzberg-Gruening said.

Fat cells are controlled by the sympathetic nervous system, which sets off the body’s “fight or flight” response and impacts leptin levels. However, this brain-to-fat circuit has yet to be fully explored.

Muenzberg-Gruening will use cutting-edge techniques to identify new components of the neural circuits to brown and white fat tissue.

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One of those tools is immunolabeling-enabled three-dimensional imaging of solvent-cleared organs, which allows researchers to create 3D images of structures deep inside the brain and fat samples.

Muenzberg-Gruening will also study how various physiological conditions — high and low body temperature, fasting and fed states — influence interactions between fat tissues, the spinal cord and the brain that are involved in temperature control and metabolic regulation.

She plans to generate a circuit model that can predict how the body adapts the amount of energy it uses under different physiological conditions.

The new project is one of seven awards involving interoception, a new research focus for the NIH. Interoception is not well understood, but if the process is not working properly, a person may not sense whether they are hungry, full, cold, hot or thirsty.

“Gaining a better understanding of how brain and fat tissue communicate represents an important advance, one that could help researchers find better ways to treat obesity,” said John Kirwan, executive director of Pennington.