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How manipulating brain hormones might treat diabetes

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
Studying fruit flies might change the way diabetes is treated.

Fruit flies and humans share many of the same genes and are a model for researchers. When it comes to the brain, humans and fruits flies are wired the same. Findings from neurobiologists at Wake Forest University recently looked at whether manipulating brain hormones in fruit flies could lead to new treatments for obesity and diabetes in humans.

The researchers specifically looked at how fruits flies behaved when their food intake was decreased.

Most of us have seen how fruit flies gather around when they’re hungry. When the tiny flies don’t get enough food they become hyperactive and go looking for something to eat, often ending up in our kitchen.

The reason, say the researchers is because adipokinetic hormone that acts functionally like glucagon, or the opposite of insulin, is released when fruit flies are starved to provide energy until the next meal arrives. The hormone release is triggered by an enzyme called AMP-activated kinase.

Erik Johnson, an associate professor of biology at Wake Forest and his research team wanted to find out what would happen if they switched off AMP-activated kinase so that no adipokinetic hormone would be released in the fruit flies’ brains.

What they found out was that sugar release in the cells decreased and the flies were no longer hyperactive, even though they were starving. The response was almost immediate.

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"Since fruit flies and humans share 30 percent of the same genes and our brains are essentially wired the same way, it suggests that this discovery could inform metabolic research in general and diabetes research specifically," said Johnson, in a press release.

The finding sheds light on a potential way to develop drugs that target brain hormones to help people with weight-loss, as well as a possible cure for diabetes.

Examples include a ‘weight-loss’ drug that turns on all AMP-activated kinase to that make the body think it’s exercising.

Related research for curing diabetes might focus on understanding more about how adipokinetic works in fruit flies, since it’s the equivalent of glucagon in humans. Studying pancreatic cells is difficult in humans.

Drugs that inhibit the production of glucagon, which raises blood sugars, would decrease the need for insulin injections. Manipulating brain hormones that cause blood sugar levels to rise could prove to be a new way to treat diabetes and fruit flies are easier to study that humans.

Wake Forest University
August 8, 2012

Image credit: Morguefile