Although obesity is a global epidemic, the physiological mechanisms involved are not well understood. Recent advances reveal that susceptibility to obesity can be programmed by maternal and neonatal nutrition. Specifically, a maternal low-protein diet during pregnancy causes decreased intrauterine growth, rapid postnatal catch-up growth and an increased risk for diet-induced obesity. Given that the synthesis of the neurotransmitter 5-hydroxytryptamine (5-HT) is nutritionally regulated and 5-HT is a trophic factor, we hypothesised that maternal diet influences fetal 5-HT exposure, which then influences development of the central appetite network and the subsequent efficacy of 5-HT to control energy balance in later life. Consistent with our hypothesis, pregnant rats fed a low-protein diet exhibited elevated serum levels of 5-HT, which was also evident in the placenta and fetal brains at embryonic day 16.5. This increase was associated with reduced levels of 5-HT2CR, the primary 5-HT receptor influencing appetite, in the fetal, neonatal and adult hypothalamus. As expected, a reduction of 5-HT2CR was associated with impaired sensitivity to 5-HT-mediated appetite suppression in adulthood. 5-HT primarily achieves effects on appetite by 5-HT2CR stimulation of pro-opiomelanocortin (POMC) peptides within the arcuate nucleus of the hypothalamus (ARC). We show that 5-HT2ARs are also anatomically positioned to influence the activity of ARC POMC neurons and that mRNA encoding 5-HT2AR is increased in the hypothalamus of in utero growth-restricted offspring that underwent rapid postnatal catch-up growth. Furthermore, these animals at 3 months of age are more sensitive to appetite suppression induced by 5-HT2AR agonists. These findings not only reveal a 5-HT-mediated mechanism underlying the programming of susceptibility to obesity, but also provide a promising means to correct it, by treatment with a 5-HT2AR agonist.
We thank Adrian Wayman for technical assistance. Microarray hybridisation was carried out by Molecular Biology Services at the University of Warwick.