The physiological control of eating: signals, neurons, and networks

Physiol Rev. 2022 Apr 1;102(2):689-813. doi: 10.1152/physrev.00028.2020. Epub 2021 Sep 6.


During the past 30 yr, investigating the physiology of eating behaviors has generated a truly vast literature. This is fueled in part by a dramatic increase in obesity and its comorbidities that has coincided with an ever increasing sophistication of genetically based manipulations. These techniques have produced results with a remarkable degree of cell specificity, particularly at the cell signaling level, and have played a lead role in advancing the field. However, putting these findings into a brain-wide context that connects physiological signals and neurons to behavior and somatic physiology requires a thorough consideration of neuronal connections: a field that has also seen an extraordinary technological revolution. Our goal is to present a comprehensive and balanced assessment of how physiological signals associated with energy homeostasis interact at many brain levels to control eating behaviors. A major theme is that these signals engage sets of interacting neural networks throughout the brain that are defined by specific neural connections. We begin by discussing some fundamental concepts, including ones that still engender vigorous debate, that provide the necessary frameworks for understanding how the brain controls meal initiation and termination. These include key word definitions, ATP availability as the pivotal regulated variable in energy homeostasis, neuropeptide signaling, homeostatic and hedonic eating, and meal structure. Within this context, we discuss network models of how key regions in the endbrain (or telencephalon), hypothalamus, hindbrain, medulla, vagus nerve, and spinal cord work together with the gastrointestinal tract to enable the complex motor events that permit animals to eat in diverse situations.

Keywords: energy balance; gastrointestinal tract; motor control; obesity; vagus nerve.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Eating / physiology*
  • Feeding Behavior / physiology*
  • Homeostasis / physiology
  • Humans
  • Hypothalamus / physiology*
  • Neurons / physiology*
  • Signal Transduction / physiology