The regulation of food intake in mammalian hibernators: a review

J Comp Physiol B. 2012 May;182(4):451-67. doi: 10.1007/s00360-011-0630-y. Epub 2011 Nov 12.


One of the most profound hallmarks of mammalian hibernation is the dramatic reduction in food intake during the winter months. Several species of hibernator completely cease food intake (aphagia) for nearly 7 months regardless of ambient temperature and in many cases, whether or not food is available to them. Food intake regulation has been studied in mammals that hibernate for over 50 years and still little is known about the physiological mechanisms that control this important behavior in hibernators. It is well known from lesion experiments in non-hibernators that the hypothalamus is the main brain region controlling food intake and therefore body mass. In hibernators, the regulation of food intake and body mass is presumably governed by a circannual rhythm since there is a clear seasonal rhythm to food intake: animals increase food intake in the summer and early autumn, food intake declines in autumn and actually ceases in winter in many species, and resumes again in spring as food becomes available in the environment. Changes in circulating hormones (e.g., leptin, insulin, and ghrelin), nutrients (glucose, and free fatty acids), and cellular enzymes such as AMP-activated protein kinase (AMPK) have been shown to determine the activity of neurons involved in the food intake pathway. Thus, it appears likely that the food intake pathway is controlled by a variety of inputs, but is also acted upon by upstream regulators that are presumably rhythmic in nature. Current research examining the molecular mechanisms and integration of environmental signals (e.g., temperature and light) with these molecular mechanisms will hopefully shed light on how animals can turn off food intake and survive without eating for months on end.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Appetite Regulation*
  • Behavior, Animal
  • Blood-Brain Barrier / metabolism
  • Energy Intake*
  • Ghrelin / metabolism
  • Hibernation*
  • Hypothalamic Hormones / metabolism
  • Hypothalamus / metabolism
  • Hypothalamus / physiology
  • Insulin / metabolism
  • Leptin / metabolism
  • Mammals / metabolism*
  • Permeability
  • Seasons


  • Ghrelin
  • Hypothalamic Hormones
  • Insulin
  • Leptin