Find out how this ‘brain nutrition’ receptor works, as well as potential clinical benefits from this discovery
One of the most interesting phenomena in the study of human genetics has been changes in height over time. For example, average height increased by approximately 10 cm (almost 4 inches) in the UK, during the 20th century. Furthermore, average height also increased as much as 20 cm (almost 8 inches) in other countries during the same time period.1 Although height is partially due to genetics, recent research has shown that it may be more affected by brain nutrition or health status.
In fact, greater height is associated with longer life, and lower risk of developing cardiovascular disease or suffering a stroke. In addition, taller women are less likely to have complications during pregnancy and birth, and their children are more likely to thrive and go on to hit puberty at an earlier age.1
Although the link between proper nutrition, greater height, and improved health is well known, the mechanism by which it works has not been clearly understood. However, a study that has just been published in the journal Nature discusses a particular receptor in the brain that uses the body’s nutritional state as a marker to regulate growth, onset of puberty, and lean muscle mass.2 Such a discovery could have significant clinical importance, particularly for children who may be suffering from malnutrition due to genetic conditions. Read further to find out how this ‘brain nutrition’ receptor works, as well as potential clinical benefits from this discovery.
How the brain balances the body’s energy needs and weight
As mentioned previously, scientists are familiar with the process by which the brain receives information regarding its current nutritional state. For example, the adipocyte (fat cell) hormone leptin acts as part of a feedback signaling loop with the brain, in order to both regulate body weight and provide a balance between energy and weight.3
Weight gain results in increased plasma leptin levels, creating a negative energy balance, while weight loss promotes the exact opposite response – decreased plasma leptin levels and a positive energy balance. These leptons hormones act on a specific protein hormone, called the melanocortin 4 receptor (MC4R), which is found in the hypothalamus area of the brain and regulates appetite.
‘Brain nutrition’: the role of MC3R in growth and sexual maturation of children
The recent article in Nature reported on the discovery of another type of melanocortin receptor, known as MC3R.2 Unlike MC4R, this type of receptor specifically times growth rate and onset of puberty, in response to the body’s nutritional state. To illustrate their findings, the study researchers used the genetic and health data for several thousand people in the UK with genetic mutations that could disrupt the function of MC3R. These study subjects were, on average, shorter, and had less lean tissue and a later onset of puberty, than those without genetic mutations.3
The discovery of MC3R could lead the way to helping children with abnormal growth delays or late onset of puberty, by testing for that particular mutation and brain nutrition deficiencies. However, it may have even more clinical applications. Understanding the link between the brain, nutrition, growth, and lean muscle mass could lead to advances in proper nutrition for patients with chronic health issues resulting from genetic mutations affecting MC3R.
- NCD Risk Factor Collaboration (NCD-RisC). A century of trends in adult human height. Elife. 2016;5:e13410.
- Lam BYH, Williamson A, Finer S, et al. MC3R links nutritional state to childhood growth and the timing of puberty. Nature. 2021;599(7885):436-441.
- Friedman JM. The function of leptin in nutrition, weight, and physiology. Nutrition Reviews. 2002;60(10 Pt 2):S1-87.