Cholesterol is essential for all animal life but high levels of cholesterol – when associated with low density lipoprotein (LDL) – are linked to an increased risk of atherosclerosis, heart disease and stroke. Circulating cholesterol can also be transported by high density lipoprotein (HDL); HDL is believed to be able to remove cholesterol from atheroma within arteries and cholesterol associated with HDL is considered to be beneficial for cardiovascular health. Cholesterol levels are determined by dietary intake, de novo synthesis and secretion by the liver: cholesterol absorption blockers and HMG-CoA reductase inhibitors (statins), which block cholesterol synthesis, are used clinically to reduce cholesterol levels.
A study led by researchers at the University of Cincinnati has now identified a new potential target for the control of cholesterol. The study, carried out in mice, found that circulation of cholesterol is regulated in the brain by the ‘hunger hormone’, ghrelin, which inhibits the melanocortin 4 receptor (MC4R) in the hypothalamus and is important for the regulation of food intake and energy expenditure. Increased levels of ghrelin were associated with increased levels of circulating HDL cholesterol, which the authors attribute to a reduction in the uptake of cholesterol by the liver. Genetically deleting or chemically blocking MCR4 in the CNS also led to increased levels of HDL cholesterol, suggesting that MCR4 is key to central control of cholesterol.
More studies are need to determine whether the effects observed in mice can be applied to humans but the finding that a neural circuit may be directly involved in the control of cholesterol metabolism by the liver could provide a target for new treatments to control cholesterol.
The study is published in the journal Nature Neuroscience.