Zona incerta

Obscure Brain Region Linked to Feeding Frenzy in Mice

mouse eating a cookie
CHOW TIME When scientists used light to stimulate select nerve cells in a region of the brain called the zona incerta, mice began eating voraciously. The results suggest that the little-studied brain region may have a role in eating behavior.

Nerve cells in a poorly understood part of the brain have the power to prompt voracious eating in already well-fed mice.

Two to three seconds after blue light activated cells in the zona incerta, a patch of neurons just underneath the thalamus and above the hypothalamus, mice dropped everything and began shoveling food into their mouths. This dramatic response, described May 26 in Science, suggests a role in eating behavior for a part of the brain that hasn’t received much scrutiny.

Scientists have previously proposed a range of jobs for the zona incerta, linking it to attention, movement and even posture. The new study suggests another job — controlling eating behavior, perhaps even in humans. “Being able to include the zona incerta in models of feeding is going to help us understand it better,” says study coauthor Anthony van den Pol, a neuroscientist at Yale University.

The new results may also help explain why a small number of Parkinson’s disease patients develop binge-eating behavior when electrodes are implanted in their brains to ease their symptoms. Those electrodes may be stimulating zona incerta nerve cells, van den Pol suspects.

During intermittent stimulation of some zona incerta…