As the number of cases of obesity rise, Americans are adding $190 billion to their yearly healthcare costs, far surpassing the expenses for smoking.

While there are preventative measures for obesity, most of the onerous is on the individual who has to change their behavior and diet. Even genetic causes are responsible for the epidemic. But in a recent study, researchers discovered that a group of stem cells could create new appetites in the brain, which could change the way eating disorders, including obesity, could be treated.

"Until recently we thought that all of these nerve cells were generated during the embryonic period and so the circuitry that controls appetite was fixed," said Mohammad Hajihosseini, lead author and researcher at the school of biological sciences at the University of East Anglia.

Researchers looked closer at the hypothalamus, a section in the brain responsible for many functions including appetite control, and followed the development of stem cells during certain parts of life in a technique called genetic fate mapping. According to scientists, losing function in the hypothalamus is a lead contributing factor to obesity.

The surprising result of this study was that the final group of brain cells called tanycytes began acting like stem cells and developed new neurons that would regulate appetite. They even continued regulating through adulthood.

Hajihosseini said that this could provide ways to manipulate the number of neurons and control appetite. They expect an opportunity to trial this study in people in five or 10 years, but in the meantime, they want to uncover the genes and functions responsible for regulating tanycytes.

"This information will further our understanding of brain stem cells and could be exploited to develop drugs that can modulate the number or functioning of appetite-regulating neurons," Hajihosseini said.

The study was published on Friday in the Journal of Neuroscience.