Proceedings of the Nutrition Society

Symposium on ‘Biology of obesity’

Brain–adipose tissue cross talk

Timothy J. Bartnessa1 c1, C. Kay Songa1, Haifei Shia1, Robert R. Bowersa1 and Michelle T. Fostera1

a1 Department of Biology, Neurobiology & Behavior Program Center for Behavioral Neuroscience, Georgia State University, Atlanta, GA 30302–4010, USA


While investigating the reversible seasonal obesity of Siberian hamsters, direct sympathetic nervous system (SNS) postganglionic innervation of white adipose tissue (WAT) has been demonstrated using anterograde and retrograde tract tracers. The primary function of this innervation is lipid mobilization. The brain SNS outflow to WAT has been defined using the pseudorabies virus (PRV), a retrograde transneuronal tract tracer. These PRV-labelled SNS outflow neurons are extensively co-localized with melanocortin-4 receptor mRNA, which, combined with functional data, suggests their involvement in lipolysis. The SNS innervation of WAT also regulates fat cell number, as noradrenaline inhibits and WAT denervation stimulates fat cell proliferation in vitro and in vivo respectively. The sensory innervation of WAT has been demonstrated by retrograde tract tracing, electrophysiological recording and labelling of the sensory-associated neuropeptide calcitonin gene-related peptide in WAT. Local injections of the sensory nerve neurotoxin capsaicin into WAT selectively destroy this innervation. Just as surgical removal of WAT pads triggers compensatory increases in lipid accretion by non-excised WAT depots, capsaicin-induced sensory denervation triggers increases in lipid accretion of non-capsaicin-injected WAT depots, suggesting that these nerves convey information about body fat levels to the brain. Finally, parasympathetic nervous system innervation of WAT has been suggested, but the recent finding of no WAT immunoreactivity for the possible parasympathetic marker vesicular acetylcholine transporter (VAChT) argues against this claim. Collectively, these data suggest several roles for efferent and afferent neural innervation of WAT in body fat regulation.


c1 *Corresponding author: Dr Timothy J. Bartness, fax +1 404 651 2509, email