Neural control of the anorexia-cachexia syndrome

Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab. 2008 Nov;295(5):E1000-8. doi: 10.1152/ajpendo.90252.2008. Epub 2008 Aug 19.


The anorexia-cachexia syndrome is a debilitating clinical condition characterizing the course of chronic diseases, which heavily impacts on patients' morbidity and quality of life, ultimately accelerating death. The pathogenesis is multifactorial and reflects the complexity and redundancy of the mechanisms controlling energy homeostasis under physiological conditions. Accumulating evidence indicates that, during disease, disturbances of the hypothalamic pathways controlling energy homeostasis occur, leading to profound metabolic changes in peripheral tissues. In particular, the hypothalamic melanocortin system does not respond appropriately to peripheral inputs, and its activity is diverted largely toward the promotion of catabolic stimuli (i.e., reduced energy intake, increased energy expenditure, possibly increased muscle proteolysis, and adipose tissue loss). Hypothalamic proinflammatory cytokines and serotonin, among other factors, are key in triggering hypothalamic resistance. These catabolic effects represent the central response to peripheral challenges (i.e., growing tumor, renal, cardiac failure, disrupted hepatic metabolism) that are likely sensed by the brain through the vagus nerve. Also, disease-induced changes in fatty acid oxidation within hypothalamic neurons may contribute to the dysfunction of the hypothalamic melanocortin system. Ultimately, sympathetic outflow mediates, at least in part, the metabolic changes in peripheral tissues. Other factors are likely involved in the pathogenesis of the anorexia-cachexia syndrome, and their role is currently being elucidated. However, available evidence shows that the constellation of symptoms characterizing this syndrome should be considered, at least in part, as different phenotypes of common neurochemical/metabolic alterations in the presence of a chronic inflammatory state.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Anorexia / metabolism
  • Anorexia / physiopathology*
  • Cachexia / metabolism
  • Cachexia / physiopathology*
  • Cytokines / physiology
  • Humans
  • Hypothalamus / metabolism
  • Hypothalamus / physiopathology
  • Melanocortins / physiology
  • Nervous System / metabolism
  • Nervous System / physiopathology*
  • Serotonin / physiology
  • Syndrome


  • Cytokines
  • Melanocortins
  • Serotonin