New research to tackle middle-aged spread

Researchers at the University of Aberdeen are working to tackle appetite control. Picture: Neil Hanna
Researchers at the University of Aberdeen are working to tackle appetite control. Picture: Neil Hanna
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New ways of combating the scourge of middle-age spread are being investigated by Scottish researchers.

The stubborn pounds that creep on around the stomach in mid-life are the bane of many as they hit their 40s - even those who have enjoyed a svelte appearance up to that point.

But researchers at the University of Aberdeen hope they could develop new treatments to help tackle middle-age spread by targeting the parts of the brain that tell us when we are full.

Their latest work, part of a £1.4 million project funded by the Wellcome Trust, is published in the journal Endocrinology.

Scientists believe that signals in the brain that tell us to stop eating function less efficiently as we approach mid-life.

The team at Aberdeen, in collaboration with experts at the universities of Cambridge and Michigan in the United States, have worked together to unlock the role obesity drugs can play in reigniting these signals.

Lead scientist Professor Lora Heisler, chair in human nutrition at the University of Aberdeen’s Rowett Institute of Nutrition and Health, said: “From young adulthood approaching middle age people commonly experience progressive weight gain around the stomach area that is commonly referred to as middle-aged spread.

“One of the reasons for this can be attributed to a small subset of cells in an area of the brain where appetite is controlled.

“These cells make important brain hormones called pro-opiomelanocortin (POMC) peptides that are responsible for regulating our appetite and body weight.

“As we approach mid-life these ‘fullness’ cells slow down and become lazier in sending these signals, which leads to a misjudgement of how much food our body needs.”

Prof Heisler said their research had focused on understanding the function of obesity medications formerly available on prescription around the globe - d-fenfluramine and sibutramine - and the new medication lorcaserin which has just been launched in the US.

D-fenfluramine and sibutramine were withdrawn from use after being linked to heart problems.

But the researchers hope by focussing in on their positive effects and removing the factors which were impacting on the heart, new and better treatments could be created.

“What we have found is that the small subset of cells that make POMC peptides are the key to these particular drugs working effectively,” she said.

“These drugs spark POMC into action, triggering important signals to the brain to let us know when we have had enough to eat.”

The researchers believe the findings could have implications for the development of new treatments to tackle the obesity epidemic in the future.

“More than half of people in the UK are overweight and one in four are clinically obese,” Prof Heisler said.

“This is an enormous percentage of the population, and given the links established between obesity and serious medical illnesses including cancer, heart disease and diabetes, it is essential that we strive to find new methods to tackle this epidemic to improve our health.

“Our new understanding of the crucial role POMC plays in combating the middle-aged spread opens the door to new medications that could be developed to jumpstart the signals these neurons send to control appetite and our waistline.”