The selfish brain: competition for energy resources

Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2004 Apr;28(2):143-80. doi: 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2004.03.002.


The brain occupies a special hierarchical position in the organism. It is separated from the general circulation by the blood-brain barrier, has high energy consumption and a low energy storage capacity, uses only specific substrates, and it can record information from the peripheral organs and control them. Here we present a new paradigm for the regulation of energy supply within the organism. The brain gives priority to regulating its own adenosine triphosphate (ATP) concentration. In that postulate, the peripheral energy supply is only of secondary importance. The brain has two possibilities to ensure its energy supply: allocation or intake of nutrients. The term 'allocation' refers to the allocation of energy resources between the brain and the periphery. Neocortex and the limbic-hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (LHPA) system control the allocation and intake. In order to keep the energy concentrations constant, the following mechanisms are available to the brain: (1) high and low-affinity ATP-sensitive potassium channels measure the ATP concentration in neurons of the neocortex and generate a 'glutamate command' signal. This signal affects the brain ATP concentration by locally (via astrocytes) stimulating glucose uptake across the blood-brain barrier and by systemically (via the LHPA system) inhibiting glucose uptake into the muscular and adipose tissue. (2) High-affinity mineralocorticoid and low-affinity glucocorticoid receptors determine the state of balance, i.e. the setpoint, of the LHPA system. This setpoint can permanently and pathologically be displaced by extreme stress situations (chronic metabolic and psychological stress, traumatization, etc.), by starvation, exercise, infectious diseases, hormones, drugs, substances of abuse, or chemicals disrupting the endocrine system. Disorders in the 'energy on demand' process or the LHPA-system can influence the allocation of energy and in so doing alter the body mass of the organism. In summary, the presented model includes a newly discovered 'principle of balance' of how pairs of high and low-affinity receptors can originate setpoints in biological systems. In this 'Selfish Brain Theory', the neocortex and limbic system play a central role in the pathogenesis of diseases such as anorexia nervosa and obesity.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological
  • Adenosine Triphosphate / metabolism
  • Animals
  • Anorexia Nervosa / metabolism
  • Brain / enzymology*
  • Brain / physiopathology
  • Diabetes Mellitus / metabolism
  • Energy Metabolism / physiology*
  • Feedback, Physiological / physiology*
  • Female
  • Glucose / metabolism*
  • Homeostasis / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Limbic System / enzymology
  • Male
  • Malnutrition / metabolism
  • Models, Biological
  • Obesity / metabolism
  • Sleep / physiology
  • Stress, Psychological / metabolism


  • Adenosine Triphosphate
  • Glucose