People are always trying to lose weight by working out and eating healthy, but what if we had a therapy that could target the brain, the source of calorie cravings? A new study from neuroscientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has identified specific brain cells that play a critical role in controlling appetite and eating behavior.

To better understand these appetite-influencing cells, called glial cells, researchers studied mice, and found that activating glial cells in the animals stimulated overeating, meanwhile suppressing them resulted in the mice having less of an appetite.

Glial cells make up about half of the cells in the brain, and they have many supporting roles, including within the brain’s hypothalamus — an almond-sized structure that controls appetite, energy expenditure, body temperature, and circadian rhythms.

“When we gave the compound that specifically activated the receptors, we saw a robust increase in (the mice) feeding,” researcher Naiyan Chen told MIT News. “Mice are not known to eat very much in the daytime, but when we gave drugs to these animals that express a particular receptor, they were eating a lot.”

These findings could lead future scientists to develop drugs that fight against obesity and other appetite-related disorders.

“In the last few years, abnormal glial cell activities have been strongly implicated in neurodegenerative disorders. There is more and more evidence to point to the importance of glial cells in modulating neuronal function and in mediating brain disorders,” researcher Guoping Feng told MIT News.

Source: Chen N, Sugihara H, Kim J, Fu Z, Barak B, Sur M, et al. Direct modulation of GFAP-expressing glia in the arcuate nucleus bi-directionally regulates feeding. eLife. 2016.

Read more:

Sleep Deprivation And Weight Gain: Appetite Increases, But You Don't Have To Go To Bed Hungry

Snacking Without An Appetite A 'Major Potential Cause Of Weight Gain'; How To Curb Cravings And Snack Healthily