A gut-brain axis regulating glucose metabolism mediated by bile acids and competitive fibroblast growth factor actions at the hypothalamus

Mol Metab. 2018 Feb;8:37-50. doi: 10.1016/j.molmet.2017.12.003. Epub 2017 Dec 9.


Objective: Bile acids have been implicated as important regulators of glucose metabolism via activation of FXR and GPBAR1. We have previously shown that FGF19 can modulate glucose handling by suppressing the activity of hypothalamic AGRP/NPY neurons. As bile acids stimulate the release of FGF19/FGF15 into the circulation, we pursued the potential of bile acids to improve glucose tolerance via a gut-brain axis involving FXR and FGF15/FGF19 within enterocytes and FGF receptors on hypothalamic AGRP/NPY neurons.

Methods: A 5-day gavage of taurocholic acid, mirroring our previous protocol of a 5-day FGF19 treatment, was performed. Oral glucose tolerance tests in mice with genetic manipulations of FGF signaling and melanocortin signaling were used to define a gut-brain axis responsive to bile acids.

Results: The taurocholic acid gavage led to increased serum concentrations of taurocholic acid as well as increases of FGF15 mRNA in the ileum and improved oral glucose tolerance in obese (ob/ob) mice. In contrast, lithocholic acid, an FXR antagonist but a potent agonist for GPBAR1, did not improve glucose tolerance. The positive response to taurocholic acid is dependent upon an intact melanocortinergic system as obese MC4R-null mice or ob/ob mice without AGRP did not show improvements in glucose tolerance after taurocholate gavage. We also tested the FGF receptor isoform necessary for the bile acid response, using AGRP:Fgfr1-/- and AGRP:Fgfr2-/- mice. While the absence of FGFR1 in AGRP/NPY neurons did not alter glucose tolerance after taurocholate gavage, manipulations of Fgfr2 caused bidirectional changes depending upon the experimental model. We hypothesized the existence of an endogenous hypothalamic FGF, most likely FGF17, that acted as a chronic activator of AGRP/NPY neurons. We developed two short peptides based on FGF8 and FGF17 that should antagonize FGF17 action. Both of these peptides improved glucose homeostasis after a 4-day course of central and peripheral injections. Significantly, daily average blood glucose from continuous glucose monitoring was reduced in all tested animals but glucose concentrations remained in the euglycemia range.

Conclusions: We have defined a gut-brain axis that regulates glucose metabolism mediated by antagonistic fibroblast growth factors. From the intestine, bile acids stimulate FGF15 secretion, leading to activation of the FGF receptors in hypothalamic AGRP/NPY neurons. FGF receptor intracellular signaling subsequently silences AGRP/NPY neurons, leading to improvements of glucose tolerance that are likely mediated by the autonomic nervous system. Finally, short peptides that antagonize homodimeric FGF receptor signaling within the hypothalamus have beneficial effects on glucose homeostasis without inducing hypoglycemia. These peptides could provide a new mode of regulating glucose metabolism.

Keywords: AGRP; Bile acids; FGF receptors; FGF15; Hypothalamus; Melanocortins.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Bile Acids and Salts / metabolism*
  • Blood Glucose / metabolism*
  • Fibroblast Growth Factors / metabolism*
  • Glucose Intolerance / metabolism*
  • Hypothalamus / metabolism*
  • Hypothalamus / physiology
  • Mice
  • Mice, Obese
  • Receptor, Fibroblast Growth Factor, Type 1 / metabolism
  • Receptor, Fibroblast Growth Factor, Type 2 / metabolism
  • Receptors, G-Protein-Coupled / metabolism


  • Bile Acids and Salts
  • Blood Glucose
  • Gpbar1 protein, mouse
  • Receptors, G-Protein-Coupled
  • Fibroblast Growth Factors
  • Fgfr1 protein, mouse
  • Fgfr2 protein, mouse
  • Receptor, Fibroblast Growth Factor, Type 1
  • Receptor, Fibroblast Growth Factor, Type 2