A subpopulation of Bdnf-e1–expressing glutamatergic neurons in the lateral hypothalamus critical for thermogenesis control

He You, Pengcheng Chu, Wei Guo, Bai Lu

Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) has long been known to play a key role in energy homeostasis and thermogenesis, but the responsible neural circuits remained unknown. You and colleagues show that disruption of Bdnf promoter I (Bdnf-e1-/-), but not promoter IV or VI results in severe deficits in thermogenesis. Furthermore, they identify a subset of neurons in the lateral hypothalamus that are both thermogenesis related and Bdnf-e1 deficient.

Objective: Brown adipose tissue (BAT)–mediated thermogenesis plays a key role in energy homeostasis and the maintenance of body temperature. Previous work suggests that brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) is involved in BAT thermogenesis, but the underlying neural circuits and molecular mechanism remain largely unknown. This is in part due to the difficulties in manipulating BDNF expression in different brain regions through different promoters and the lack of tools to identify neurons in the brain specifically involved in BAT thermogenesis.

Methods: We have created several lines of mutant mice in which BDNF transcription from a specific promoter was selectively disrupted by replacing Bdnf with green fluorescent protein (GFP; Bdnf-e1, -e4, and -e6−/− mice). As such, cells expressing Bdnf-e1, -e4, or -e6 were labeled with GFP. To identify BAT-connected thermogenesis neurons in brain, we applied the retrograde pseudorabies virus labeling method from BAT. We also used chemogenetic tools to manipulate specific neurons coupled with BAT temperature recording. Moreover, we developed a new TrkB agonist antibody to rescue the BAT thermogenesis deficits.

Results: We show that selective disruption of Bdnf expression from promoter 1 (Bdnf-e1) resulted in severe obesity and deficits of BAT-mediated thermogenesis. Body temperature response to cold was impaired in Bdnf-e1−/− mice. BAT expression of Ucp1 and Pcg1a, genes known to regulate thermogenesis, was also reduced, accompanying a decrease in the sympathetic activity of BAT. Staining of cells expressing Bdnf-e1 transcript, combined with transsynaptic, retrograde-tracing labeling of BAT-connected neurons, identified a group of excitatory neurons in lateral hypothalamus (LH) critical for thermogenesis regulation. Moreover, an adaptive thermogenesis defect in Bdnf-e1−/− mice was rescued by injecting an agonistic antibody for TrkB, the BDNF receptor, into LH. Remarkably, activation of the excitatory neurons (VGLUT2+) in LH through chemogenetic tools resulted in a rise of BAT temperature.

Conclusions: These results reveal a specific role of BDNF promoter I in thermogenesis regulation and define a small subset of neurons in LH that contribute to such regulation.