Researchers identify unique glucose-sensing neurons that regulate blood sugar

Low blood sugar levels, known as hypoglycemia, can be a life-threatening situation, especially for people with type 1 diabetes who rely on intensive insulin therapy to prevent blood sugar from going too high. Solutions to this problem may come from a better understanding of the basic mechanisms keeping blood sugar in balance.

At Baylor College of Medicine and other institutions, researchers led by Dr. Yong Xu, associate professor of pediatrics-nutrition and of molecular and cellular biology at Baylor, have identified a group of unique glucose-sensing neurons in the brain and how they work together to prevent severe hypoglycemia in mice. Their results appear in the journal Nature Communications.

“Glucose-sensing neurons sense fluctuations in blood sugar levels and respond by rapidly decreasing or increasing their firing activities. This response can trigger changes in behavior to increase glucose levels. For instance, the animals may begin eating,” Xu said. “Glucose-sensing neurons also can affect the production of hormones such as glucagon that can directly regulate glucose production or uptake by peripheral tissues. It’s a feedback system that keeps the balance of blood glucose.”

Glucose-sensing neurons are found in several brain regions. Xu and his colleagues focused on neurons located in a small area called the ventrolateral subdivision of the ventromedial hypothalamic nucleus (vlVMH). Many neurons in this region express estrogen receptor-alpha and respond to glucose fluctuations in the blood, but their functions in glucose metabolism had not been specifically investigated.

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