Appetite control and energy balance regulation in the modern world: Reward-driven brain overrides repletion signals

H. Zheng, N. R. Lenard, A. C. Shin, H. R. Berthoud

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

186 Scopus citations


Powerful biological mechanisms evolved to defend adequate nutrient supply and optimal levels of body weight/adiposity. Low levels of leptin indicating food deprivation and depleted fat stores have been identified as the strongest signals to induce adaptive biological actions such as increased energy intake and reduced energy expenditure. In concert with other signals from the gut and metabolically active tissues, low leptin levels trigger powerful activation of multiple peripheral and brain systems to restore energy balance. It is not just neurons in the arcuate nucleus, but many other brain systems involved in finding potential food sources, smelling and tasting food, and learning to maximize rewarding effects of foods, that are affected by low leptin. Food restriction and fat depletion thus lead to a ‘hungry’ brain, preoccupied with food. By contrast, because of less (adaptive thrifty fuel efficiency) or lost (lack of predators) evolutionary pressure, the upper limits of body weight/adiposity are not as strongly defended by high levels of leptin and other signals. The modern environment is characterized by the increased availability of large amounts of energy-dense foods and increased presence of powerful food cues, together with minimal physical procurement costs and a sedentary lifestyle. Much of these environmental influences affect cortico-limbic brain areas concerned with learning and memory, reward, mood and emotion. Common obesity results when individual predisposition to deal with a restrictive environment, as engraved by genetics, epigenetics and/or early life experience, is confronted with an environment of plenty. Therefore, increased adiposity in prone individuals should be seen as a normal physiological response to a changed environment, not in the pathology of the regulatory system. The first line of defense should ideally lie in modifications to the environment and lifestyle. However, as such modifications will be slow and incomplete, it is equally important to gain better insight into how the brain deals with environmental stimuli and to develop behavioral strategies to better cope with them. Clearly, alternative therapeutic strategies such as drugs and bariatric surgery should also be considered to prevent or treat this debilitating disease. It will be crucial to understand the functional crosstalk between neural systems responding to metabolic and environmental stimuli, i.e. crosstalk between hypothalamic and cortico-limbic circuitry.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)S8-S13
JournalInternational Journal of Obesity
StatePublished - Jun 2009


  • Cortico-limbic systems
  • Environmental food cues
  • Food reward
  • Leptin
  • Metabolic need
  • Neural control of appetite


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