Research suggests brain plays major role in diabetes
Recent research findings have spurred interest in the brain's role in metabolic disease. Michael Schwartz, professor of medicine in the Division of Endocrinology, Metabolism, and Nutrition, discussed those findings as co-author of a viewpoint article in a special section on diabetes in the Jan. 21 issue of Science.
Schwartz, who practices at Harborview Medical Center, co-authored the article with Daniel Porte, Jr., a former UW professor now at the University of California-San Diego and the VA San Diego Health Care System.
They cite new research that suggests an alternative explanation for the link between obesity and diabetes. Physicians believed that obesity causes insulin resistance, but new data suggest the nervous system plays an important role in the process. The brain may sense and respond to input from hormones such as insulin and leptin. Disturbances affecting how the brain processes that input may cause both weight gain and insulin resistance.
Research indicates that the hypothalamus receives input from hormones like insulin and leptin that are secreted in proportion to body fat stores, as well as from such nutrient-related signals as free fatty acids. Those signals give the brain information about energy stores in body fat and nutrients in the bloodstream.
Medical scientists will need to gather more knowledge about the brain systems that control fat storage and energy to make progress in understanding and treating diabetes, the authors said.