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Status: 06.06.2020 16:04:14

Insulin: Protective Adaptive Mechanism in the Brain

Press release 11.03.2019

Insulin helps neurons produce a specific class of proteins that are important for brain health. This is the result of a study in mice by DZD scientists at DIfE published in the journal Molecular Metabolism: Animals administered the hormone through the nose expressed more of the protective proteins and ate less high-fat chow than mice that did not receive intranasal insulin.

Cells "respond" to stress by creating more protective molecules that counteract this stress. Among other things, these ensure that protein maturation is fast, precise and – as far as possible – error-free. Thus, the body adapts to extreme conditions that can arise if we constantly eat too much or too little. "Usually the term “stress” is associated with something negative. However, the cellular stress response is a process that ensures that the cells remain healthy – something positive in this context," said Dr. André Kleinridders, who is investigating the causes and consequences of insulin resistance in the brain at the German Institute of Human Nutrition Potsdam-Rehbruecke (DIfE) and the German Center for Diabetes Research (DZD). Insulin is responsible for the fine tuning of brain function in the central nervous system. It influences the reward center, food intake, cognition and behavior. Insulin resistance means that the hormone is no longer effective even though it is available in sufficient quantities.

Kleinridders and his team have now discovered that insulin in the brain causes the cell to produce more protective molecules, including the heat-shock proteins HSP10 and HSP60, which are indispensable for the assembly of proteins. Via this signaling pathway, insulin controls mitochondrial function in the hypothalamus – the brain region that regulates our eating behavior. The vital energy for the body is produced in these organelles of cellular respiration. This is why the mitochondria are referred to as the “power plants” of the cells. A defective stress response would result in mitochondrial dysfunction and thus lead to neuronal cell death. The loss of these molecules can be associated with both metabolic diseases such as type 2 diabetes and various neurodegenerative diseases.

More "stress", less hunger

Researchers already knew that intranasal insulin reduces hunger for high-sugar food in healthy people. When insulin is administered through the nose, for example with a spray, it bypasses the blood-brain barrier and reaches the brain directly. In the current study, researchers observed that healthy mice that "snuffed" insulin likewise ate less of the tasty chow on offer, but which in this experiment was not high in sugar, but rather a high-fat diet. The team of scientists also found that the mice increasingly formed the protective molecules mentioned above, which support the function of the mitochondria in the hypothalamus and thus neuronal health.

The research team also investigated diabetic mice that did not have endogenous insulin and mice that became resistant to the hormone due to high-fat foods. Both groups had a reduced stress response. By stimulating with insulin, the response could be normalized again. "We still do not know why diabetic patients are at an increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s. The insulin-dependent regulatory mechanism of the stress response provides important explanatory approaches that definitely should be pursued," said Kristina Wardelmann, doctoral student in the Junior Research Group and first author of the study.

Sustainable promotion of healthy aging

In addition to insulin, dietary components such as fat also seem to influence the stress response in the brain. "Presumably, the brain perceives increased levels of fatty acids and activates adaptive metabolic responses," said Kleinridders. In the future, the group also wants to look for nutrients that have a similar positive effect as insulin on the function of the mitochondria and thus on the energy supply and metabolism. This knowledge could help to develop novel intervention strategies that sustainably promote healthy aging.


Original Publication

Wardelmann K, Blümel S, Rath M, Alfine E, Chudoba C, Schell M1, Cai W, Hauffe 1, Warnke K, Flore T, Ritter K, Weiß J, Kahn CR, Kleinridders A. Insulin action in the brain regulates mitochondrial stress responses and reduces diet-induced weight gain. Molecular Metabolism (2019)

Related Articles

Chudoba C, Wardelmann K, Kleinridders A. Molecular effects of dietary fatty acids on brain insulin action and mitochondrial function. Biological Chemistry (2019)

Background Information

German Institute of Human Nutrition Potsdam-Rehbruecke (DIfE)

The DIfE is a member of the Leibniz Association. It investigates the causes of nutrition-associated diseases in order to develop new strategies for prevention, treatment and nutritional recommendations. Its research interests include the cause and consequences of the metabolic syndrome, a combination of obesity, hypertension (high blood pressure), insulin resistance and lipid metabolism disorder, the role of nutrition for healthy aging and the biological bases of food choices and dietary behavior. DIfE is also a partner of the German Center for Diabetes Research (DZD), which has been funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) since 2009.

German Center for Diabetes Research (DZD)

The DZD is one of six German Centers of Health Research. It brings together experts in the field of diabetes research and combines basic research, epidemiology and clinical applications. By adopting an innovative, integrative approach to research, the DZD aims to make a substantial contribution to the successful, personalized prevention, diagnosis and treatment of diabetes mellitus. The members of the association are Helmholtz Zentrum München – German Research Center for Environmental Health, the German Diabetes Center Düsseldorf (DDZ), the German Institute of Human Nutrition Potsdam-Rehbruecke (DIfE), the Institute of Diabetes Research and Metabolic Diseases of Helmholtz Zentrum München at the University of Tübingen, and the Paul Langerhans Institute Dresden of Helmholtz Zentrum München at the University Medical Center Carl Gustav Carus of TU Dresden, associated partners at the universities in Heidelberg, Cologne, Leipzig, Lübeck and Munich, and other project partners.

Media Contact

Dr. André Kleinridders
Head of the Junior Research Group Central Regulation of Metabolism
German Institute of Human Nutrition Potsdam-Rehbruecke (DIfE)
phone: +49 33200 88-2428

Sonja Schäche
Head of Press and Public Relations
German Institute of Human Nutrition Potsdam-Rehbruecke (DIfE)
phone: +49 33200 88-2278
e-mail: /

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