Appetite and eating are not only controlled by energy needs, but also by extrinsic factors that are not directly related to energy balance. Environmental signals that acquire motivational properties through associative learning-learned cues-can override homeostatic signals and stimulate eating in sated states, or inhibit eating in states of hunger. Such influences are important, as environmental factors are believed to contribute to the increased susceptibility to overeating and the rise in obesity in the developed world. Similarly, environmental and social factors contribute to the onset and maintenance of anorexia nervosa and other eating disorders through interactions with the individual genetic background. Nevertheless, how learning enables environmental signals to control feeding, and the underlying brain mechanisms are poorly understood. We developed two rodent models to study how learned cues are integrated with homeostatic signals within functional forebrain networks, and how these networks are modulated by experience. In one model, a cue previously paired with food when an animal was hungry induces eating in sated rats. In the other model, food-deprived rats inhibit feeding when presented with a cue that signals danger, a tone previously paired with footshocks. Here evidence will be reviewed that the forebrain network formed by the amygdala, lateral hypothalamus and medial prefrontal cortex mediates cue-driven feeding, while a parallel amygdalar circuitry mediates suppression of eating by the fear cue. Findings from the animal models may be relevant for understanding aspects of human appetite and eating, and maladaptive mechanisms that could lead to overeating and anorexia. © 2011 Elsevier Inc.
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