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Picking our brains on blood sugar levels

Project summary

Our brain plays an important role in assessing whether our blood sugar levels are too high or too low, so our body can bring them back into a safe range. Dr Ellacott wants to focus on a type of brain cell, called the astrocyte, to figure out they’re involved in sensing blood glucose levels. This could help us develop new treatments that target astrocytes to help people with diabetes avoid dangerous blood sugar levels.

Background to research

If our blood sugar levels become too high or too low, our brain should jump into action to help get those levels back into a safe range. It does this in a few ways, including controlling our appetite, holding onto or releasing our body’s stored up energy, and ‘talking’ to our pancreas to help control how much insulin it releases. In people with diabetes, this response by the brain can go wrong, but we don’t fully understand how.

A region of the brain called the dorsal vagal complex (DVC) contains nerve cells called astrocytes. Dr Kate Ellacott has previously shown that activating astrocytes in the DVC in mice can reduce their appetite, even when they are hungry. This tells us that astrocytes in the DVC may be important for sensing and communicating information about blood sugar levels.

Research aims

Dr Ellacott will now investigate if and how astrocytes in the DVC are involved in controlling blood sugar levels in mice. Her team will study mice and give them special drugs that allow the researchers to turn different groups of brain cells on and off.

They will see whether turning on the astrocytes in the DVC changes the way the mice respond to high or low blood sugar levels. To do this, they’ll measure how much the mice eat and the levels of hormones released from the pancreas, which work to control blood sugar levels.

Potential benefit to people with diabetes

Living with diabetes, and trying to keep your blood sugar levels from going too high or too low, can be like walking a tightrope. But this research could help us understand if – in the future – we could develop new treatments that target cells in our brain to help people with diabetes keep their blood sugar levels safe. This could protect people from the potentially dangerous consequences of high and low blood sugars.

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