The role of fatty acids and their endocannabinoid-like derivatives in the molecular regulation of appetite

Renger F. Witkamp*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

36 Citations (Scopus)


Intake, absorption and synthesis of fatty acids, including those produced by the intestinal microbiota are tightly monitored via specific receptors and, indirectly through their conversion into a variety of signalling molecules. The resulting information is integrated and translated to different physiological processes, including the regulation of appetite and satiation. Direct chemosensing of fatty acids takes place via interaction with free fatty acid (FFA) and other receptors. These are present in the oronasal cavity and along the entire gastrointestinal tract, in various other tissues, and, for some receptors also in brain. Results from early studies have suggested differences between fatty acids in their ability to induce the release of satiety hormones or their short-term effects on food-intake. However, more recent findings indicate that this has limited impact on long-term energy intake. Similarly, pharmacological strategies for appetite control via modulation of peripheral fatty acid binding receptors have not met their expectations. Regarding the psychobiology of eating behaviour, there has been a shift towards emphasising the importance of food reward and the cephalic phase response. Lipid-rich foods are highly energy dense. During evolution this has stimulated the development of reward mechanisms, in which fatty acids, in conjunction with carbohydrates, are major triggers. Fatty acids are also precursors of endocannabinoids and their structural congeners. The endocannabinoid system (ECS) plays a pivotal role in the homeostatic and non-homeostatic regulation of eating behaviour. In the brain it links to different endocrine and neuronal pathways, including dopaminergic circuits in the mesocorticolimbic system such as the ventral tegmental area and the nucleus accumbens, which are crucial for hedonic eating. Despite the vast progress made in the field of neurobiology it is clear that eating behaviour, one of our strongest instincts, still possess major scientific challenges. The failure, already a decade ago, of the cannabinoid-receptor type 1 (CB1) blockers for treatment of overweight and its complications may serve as an illustration that 'single-target' approaches to modulate, or even understand-, over- or undereating are very unrealistic.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)45-67
JournalMolecular Aspects of Medicine
Early online date19 Jan 2018
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2018


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