MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, it's All Things Considered. I'm Michele Norris. If you're recovering from some energetic eating on Thanksgiving, well, listen up. Scientists have found a molecule that's produced after consuming a fatty meal. It appears to send a signal to the brain saying it's time to put down that fork. This molecule could someday help people do a better job of controlling their weight, as NPR's Joe Palca reports.
JOE PALCA: The molecule has a name that's a mouthful.
Dr. GERALD SCHULMAN (School of Medicine, Yale University): N-Acylphosphatidylethanolamine.
PALCA: Gerald Schulman and his colleagues at Yale University School of Medicine discovered N-Acylphosphatidylethanolamine, or NAPE for short. It's a compound that's made from triglycerides, the kind of fats you find in meat. Now, there are a lot of signals that tell us when we've eaten enough. The stomach stretches and the gut produces a mix of hormones that sends signals saying enough already. NAPE is new. It's produced in the gut, but Schulman says it acts in the brain. And it's only produced following a fatty meal.
Dr. SCHULMAN: It showed that it doesn't increase with carbohydrate feeding, does not increase with protein feeding, just fat feeding.
PALCA: So, let me see if I've got this. We eat fatty food, there's something - a reaction that happens in the gut that breaks the fatty food down into various elements. One of these elements is this NAPE.
Dr. SCHULMAN: Right.
PALCA: And then it's carried in the bloodstream to the brain and a particular part of the brain - the hypothalamus - where it has an effect on appetite.
Dr. SCHULMAN: Exactly.
PALCA: The effect is to reduce the appetite. As Schulman reports in the journal Cell, giving rodents a synthetic form of NAPE reduced their food intake. In fact, most of what Schulman knows about NAPE comes from rodents, but he says humans produce NAPEs, too.
Dr. SCHULMAN: So, as we speak, we're doing studies in humans looking to see if we get similar increases in NAPEs following fat ingestion.
PALCA: If they do, Randy Seeley says this could be an important tool in helping people struggling with obesity.
Dr. RANDY SEELEY (Associate Director, Obesity Research Center, University of Cincinnati): This opens up a whole, another avenue of different kinds of signals the gut might be generating, that tell us how much we're eating.
PALCA: Seeley is associate director of the Obesity Research Center at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine. But could be an important tool is the key. Seeley says sure it's possible that someone is obese because they're not producing enough NAPEs so their brains don't know when to stop eating. In that case, a dose of NAPEs could be helpful.
Dr. SEELEY: If they're already making a lot of it but are insensitive to it, all right, which is another possibility, well, then, giving people more of it won't be as helpful. And trying to figure that out is sort of a long-term process that, you know, requires a number of years. And that's where we'll figure out whether it's likely to be therapeutically beneficial enough.
PALCA: Seeley says it's important to keep in mind that for the most part, we are very good about maintaining the proper weight.
Dr. SEELEY: Think about how many calories you're going to consume this year. The answer is about 900,000. You probably consume 50 percent of those between now and New Year's. But you consider 900,000 calories in a year - if you're just going to gain a one pound, you would have to only overeat by 4,000 calories.
PALCA: That's 11 calories a day, over the course of a year. Of course, if NAPEs could help some of us avoid those extra 11 calories, that could be a good thing. Joe Palca, NPR News Washington.
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