Low Ghrelin – Reducing Appetite at the Cost of Increased Stress?

Philadelphia, PA, September 13, 2012 – Ghrelin is a hormone released by the lining of the stomach that promotes feeding behavior. Decreasing ghrelin levels could potentially help combat obesity -- in fact, a vaccine that lowers ghrelin levels in order to reduce appetite is being studied as a treatment for obesity.

However, many people eat as a way to relieve stress. If low ghrelin levels increase stress, its effectiveness as a treatment for obesity may be reduced. In the current issue of Biological Psychiatry, researchers led by Dr. Zane Andrews of Monash University in Australia show that mice with no ghrelin are more anxious after stress, but that administration of endogenous ghrelin prevents the over-anxious response.

Previous studies have indicated that ghrelin can be either anxiety-causing or anxiety-relieving. This new set of studies now reveals that this dual role in anxiety behavior is context-dependent. Under non-stressed conditions, normal mice show mild anxiety relative to mice without ghrelin. Under acute stress, normal mice mount an appropriate ghrelin response to stress and are less anxious than no-ghrelin mice. In other words, stress-induced ghrelin release targets the body’s stress system to stimulate a hormonal response that will combat the stress.

Ghrelin promotes the drive for food intake and maintains blood glucose during negative energy balance as well as subserving the rewarding nature of food. “We postulate that, under conditions of acute stress, ghrelin limits excessive anxious behavior by promoting the feeling of reward to ensure appropriate food-seeking behavior and maintain energy homeostasis. Consistent with this idea, studies from Jeff Zigman and colleagues showed that elevated ghrelin during calorie restriction produced anxiolytic responses in a test of anxious behavior,” said Andrews.

“We hypothesize that ghrelin suppresses anxiety under acutely stressful conditions to encourage food seeking and maintain appropriate energy homeostasis. Indeed, the importance of ghrelin in controlling stress-induced anxiety might manifest only during conditions of elevated plasma ghrelin, such as negative energy balance and calorie restriction,” he continued. “This phenomenon represents an important evolutionary adaptation that maintains food-seeking behavior in the face of acutely stressful environments.”

“This study highlights the complexity of approaches for reducing the epidemic in obesity,” commented Dr. John Krystal, Editor of Biological Psychiatry. “In this case, low ghrelin levels stimulate anxiety and anxiety is a factor that increases food consumption in humans, particularly sweet and fatty comfort foods. These studies highlight complex relationships between systems in the body and brain that regulate mood and food consumption.”

The article is “Ghrelin Regulates the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis and Restricts Anxiety After Acute Stress” by Sarah J. Spencer, Lu Xu, Melanie A. Clarke, Moyra Lemus, Alex Reichenbach, Bram Geenen, Tamás Kozicz, and Zane B. Andrews (doi: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2012.03.010). The article appears in Biological Psychiatry, Volume 72, Issue 6 (September 15, 2012), published by Elsevier.

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Notes for editors
Full text of the article is available to credentialed journalists upon request; contact Rhiannon Bugno at +1 214 648 0880 or Biol.Psych@utsouthwestern.edu. Journalists wishing to interview the authors may contact Dr. Zane Andrews at +61 3 99058165 or zane.andrews@monash.edu.

The authors’ affiliations, and disclosures of financial and conflicts of interests are available in the article.

John H. Krystal, M.D., is Chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at the Yale University School of Medicine and a research psychiatrist at the VA Connecticut Healthcare System. His disclosures of financial and conflicts of interests are available here.

About Biological Psychiatry
Biological Psychiatry is the official journal of the Society of Biological Psychiatry, whose purpose is to promote excellence in scientific research and education in fields that investigate the nature, causes, mechanisms and treatments of disorders of thought, emotion, or behavior. In accord with this mission, this peer-reviewed, rapid-publication, international journal publishes both basic and clinical contributions from all disciplines and research areas relevant to the pathophysiology and treatment of major psychiatric disorders.

The journal publishes novel results of original research which represent an important new lead or significant impact on the field, particularly those addressing genetic and environmental risk factors, neural circuitry and neurochemistry, and important new therapeutic approaches. Reviews and commentaries that focus on topics of current research and interest are also encouraged.

Biological Psychiatry is one of the most selective and highly cited journals in the field of psychiatric neuroscience. It is ranked 5th out of 129 Psychiatry titles and 16th out of 243 Neurosciences titles in the Journal Citations Reports® published by Thomson Reuters. The 2011 Impact Factor score for Biological Psychiatry is 8.283.

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Media contact
Rhiannon Bugno
+1 214 648 0880
Biol.Psych@utsouthwestern.edu