Tag Archives: hypothalamus

Set points, a mechanism for one at last.

Human biology is full of set points.  Despite our best efforts few can lose weight and keep it off.  Yet few count calories and try to eat so their weight is constant.  Average body temperature is pretty constant (despite daily fluctuations).  Neuroscientists are quite aware of synaptic homeostasis.

And yet until now, despite their obvious existence, all we could do is describe setpoints, not explain the mechanisms behind them.  Most ‘explanations’ of them were really descriptions.

Here is an example:

Endocrinology was pretty simple in med school back in the 60s. All the target endocrine glands (ovary, adrenal, thyroid, etc.) were controlled by the pituitary; a gland about the size of a marble sitting an inch or so directly behind the bridge of your nose. The pituitary released a variety of hormones into the blood (one or more for each target gland) telling the target glands to secrete, and secrete they did. That’s why the pituitary was called the master gland back then.  The master gland ruled.

Things became a bit more complicated when it was found that a small (4 grams or so out of 1500) part of the brain called the hypothalamus sitting just above the pituitary was really in control, telling the pituitary what and when to secrete. Subsequently it was found that the hormones secreted by the target glands (thyroid, ovary, etc.) were getting into the hypothalamus and altering its effects on the pituitary. Estrogen is one example. Any notion of simple control vanished into an ambiguous miasma of setpoints, influences and equilibria. Goodbye linearity and simple notions of causation.

As soon as feedback (or simultaneous influence) enters the picture it becomes like the three body problem in physics, where 3 objects influence each other’s motion at the same time by the gravitational force. As John Gribbin (former science writer at Nature and now prolific author) said in his book ‘Deep Simplicity’, “It’s important to appreciate, though, that the lack of solutions to the three-body problem is not caused by our human deficiencies as mathematicians; it is built into the laws of mathematics.” The physics problem is actually much easier than endocrinology, because we know the exact strength and form of the gravitational force.

A recent paper [ Neuron vol. 102 pp. 908 – 910, 1009 – 1024 ’19 ] is the first to describe a mechanism behind any setpoint and one of particular importance to the brain (and possibly to epilepsy as well).

The work was done at significant remove from the brain — hippocampal neurons grown in culture.  They synapse with each other, action potentials are fired and postsynaptic responses occur.  The firing rate is pretty constant.  Block a neurotransmitter receptor, and the firing rate increases to keep postsynaptic responses the same.  Increase the amount of neurotransmitter released by an action potential (neuronal firing) and the firing rate descreases.  This is what synaptic homeostasis is all about.  It’s back to baseline transmission across the synapse regardless of what we do, but we had no idea how this happened.

Well we still don’t but at least we know what controls the rate at which hippocampal neurons fire in culture (e.g. the setpoint).  It has to do with an enzyme (DHODH) and mitochondrial calcium levels.

DHODH stands for Di Hydro Orotate DeHydrogenase, an enzyme in mitochondria involved in electron transfer (and ultimately energy production).   Inhibit the enzyme (or decrease the amount of DHODH around) and the neurons fire less.  What is interesting about this, that all that is changed is the neuronal firing rate (e.g. the setpoint is changed).  However, there is no change in the intrinsic excitability of the neurons (to external electrical stimulation), the postsynaptic response to transmitter, the number of mitochondria, presynaptic ATP levels etc.

Even better, synaptic homeostasis is preserved.  Manipulations increasing or decreasing the firing rate are never permanent, so that changes back to the baseline rate occur.

Aside from its intrinsic intellectual interest, this work is potentially quite useful.  The firing rate of neurons in people with epilepsy is increased.  It is conceivable that drugs inhibiting DHODH would treat epilepsy.  Such drugs (teriflunomide) are available for the treatment of multiple sclerosis.

The paper has some speculation of how DHODH inhibition would lead to decreased neuronal firing (changes in mitochondrial calcium levels etc. etc) which I won’t go into here as it’s just speculation (but at least plausible spectulation).