The Orexigenic Force of Olfactory Palatable Food Cues in Rats

Nutrients. 2021 Sep 3;13(9):3101. doi: 10.3390/nu13093101.


Environmental cues recalling palatable foods motivate eating beyond metabolic need, yet the timing of this response and whether it can develop towards a less palatable but readily available food remain elusive. Increasing evidence indicates that external stimuli in the olfactory modality communicate with the major hub in the feeding neurocircuitry, namely the hypothalamic arcuate nucleus (Arc), but the neural substrates involved have been only partially uncovered. By means of a home-cage hidden palatable food paradigm, aiming to mimic ubiquitous exposure to olfactory food cues in Western societies, we investigated whether the latter could drive the overeating of plain chow in non-food-deprived male rats and explored the neural mechanisms involved, including the possible engagement of the orexigenic ghrelin system. The olfactory detection of a familiar, palatable food impacted upon meal patterns, by increasing meal frequency, to cause the persistent overconsumption of chow. In line with the orexigenic response observed, sensing the palatable food in the environment stimulated food-seeking and risk-taking behavior, which are intrinsic components of food acquisition, and caused active ghrelin release. Our results suggest that olfactory food cues recruited intermingled populations of cells embedded within the feeding circuitry within the Arc, including, notably, those containing the ghrelin receptor. These data demonstrate the leverage of ubiquitous food cues, not only for palatable food searching, but also to powerfully drive food consumption in ways that resonate with heightened hunger, for which the orexigenic ghrelin system is implicated.

Keywords: AgRP; Fos; POMC; RNAscope; arcuate nucleus; dopamine; feeding; food cues; food-seeking; ghrelin.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Arcuate Nucleus of Hypothalamus / physiology
  • Conditioning, Operant
  • Cues*
  • Feeding Behavior* / physiology
  • Feeding Behavior* / psychology
  • Ghrelin / blood
  • Hyperphagia / etiology
  • Hyperphagia / physiopathology*
  • Male
  • Neural Pathways / physiology
  • Rats
  • Rats, Sprague-Dawley
  • Smell*
  • Taste / physiology


  • Ghrelin