NIH Will Fund Study of How the Brain and Fat Tissue Communicate

Study Aim: Generate a model for the brain and fat communication system that balances metabolism during environmental challenges

Oct. 19,2021

For more information, contact Ted Griggs: (225) 288-8840,

brain to spine interoception

BATON ROUGE, Louisiana - A new study will investigate how the brain and body fat communicate to control the production and release of leptin, a feedback hormone that helps regulate appetite and the number of calories burned.

The project is part of the National Institutes of Health’s new effort focusing on interoception, the ways in which organisms sense and regulate signals within their bodies.  Heike Muenzberg-Gruening, PhD, Professor and Director, Central Leptin Signaling Laboratory at Pennington Biomedical Research Center, is the principal investigator on this project.

“Fat tissue plays an important role in our health. It stores and breaks down fat but also secretes hormones like leptin to impact energy expenditure, food intake and blood sugar levels,” Dr. Muenzberg-Gruening said.  

Fat cells are controlled by the sympathetic nervous system, which sets off the body’s “fight or flight” response and impacts leptin levels. However, this brain-to-fat circuit has yet to be fully explored.

Dr. Muenzberg-Gruening will use cutting-edge techniques to identify new components of the neural circuits to brown and white fat tissue. One of those tools is immunolabeling-enabled three-dimensional imaging of solvent-cleared organs (iDISCO), which allows researchers to create three-dimensional images of structures deep inside the brain and fat samples.

Neural network

Dr. Muenzberg-Gruening will also study how various physiological conditions — high and low body temperature, fasting and fed states — influence interactions between fat tissues, the spinal cord and the brain that are involved in temperature control and metabolic regulation.

She plans to generate a circuit model that can predict how the body adapts the amount of energy it uses under different physiological conditions.

The new project is one of seven awards involving interoception, a new research focus for NIH.  Interoception is not well understood, but if the process is not working properly, a person may not sense whether they are hungry, full, cold, hot or thirsty.

“Gaining a better understanding of how brain and fat tissue communicate represents an important advance, one that could help researchers find better ways to treat obesity,” said Pennington Biomedical Executive Director John Kirwan, PhD.

This 5-year project is supported by the National Center for Complementary & Integrative Health of the National Institutes of Health under Award Number AT011676-01. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.


About the Pennington Biomedical Research Center
The Pennington Biomedical Research Center is at the forefront of medical discovery as it relates to understanding the triggers of obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer and dementia.  The Center conducts basic, clinical, and population research and architected the “Obecity, USA” awareness and advocacy campaign to help solve the obesity epidemic by 2040.  The Center is affiliated with Louisiana State University.  The research enterprise at Pennington Biomedical includes over 480 employees within a network of 40 clinics and research laboratories, and 13 highly specialized core service facilities. Its scientists and physician/scientists are supported by research trainees, lab technicians, nurses, dietitians, and other support personnel.  Pennington Biomedical is located in state-of-the-art research facilities on a 222-acre campus in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.  For more information, see