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How the brain senses low glucose levels

For those with diabetes, managing blood sugar is a balancing act – if blood sugar is too high it raises the risk for nerve damage, blindness, kidney failure, and heart trouble, and if too low it can lead to a seizure or unconsciousness.

Now a team of scientists from the UK and the University of Michigan Comprehensive Centre has taken a step forward in understanding how the brain senses low glucose levels and triggers the body's response. The discovery may accelerate work to safely control diabetes.

Researchers identified a novel pathway buried deep within a region of the brain called the parabrachial nucleus that produces cholecystokinin (CCK), a brain hormone that acts as a crucial sensor of blood glucose levels. The hormone helps orchestrate responses around the body when levels drop too low, according to the study. "It is remarkable to find that such an incredibly small set of cells in the brain play such an important role in maintaining normal glucose levels," says study author Lora K Heisler, chair of human nutrition at the Rowett Institute of Nutrition & Health at the University of Aberdeen. It's known that CCK cells in the brain modify things like appetite and anxiety but they had previously been overlooked in relation to blood sugar levels, authors say.

"The discovery of the important function of this brain hormone raises the possibility of using drugs targeting the CCK system to boost defences against hypoglycaemia, the clinical syndrome that results from low blood sugar," says study author Dr Martin G Myers Jr, the Marilyn H Vincent professor in diabetes research at the University of Michigan Comprehensive Diabetes Centre.

Heisler says the identification of the role played by CCK could be of particular significance to an estimated 20% of those with diabetes who suffer side effects of low blood sugar, called hypoclycemia. "When patients suffer repeated bouts of hypoglycemia they can develop ‘unawareness’ which means they find it difficult to detect symptoms that their blood sugar levels are falling and it is this group particularly that we hope could benefit from our findings in regard to the role played by CCK," Heisler says.

Further research is now needed to look at how we can target the CCK system as well as the cells upon which CCK acts to prevent or treat hypoglycaemia.

[link url="http://www.uofmhealth.org/news/archive/201501/new-brain-pathway-offers-hope-treating-hypoglycemia"]University of Michigan Health release[/link]
[link url="http://www.nature.com/neuro/journal/v17/n12/full/nn.3861.html"]Nature Neuroscience abstract[/link]

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