Food is, generally speaking, a good thing. In addition to being quite tasty, it is also necessary for survival. That’s why animals have evolved robust physiological systems that attract them to food and keep them coming back for more.

Now, research in mice reveals the existence of brain cells that have the opposite effect, curbing an animal’s impulse to eat. Published in Neuron, the study shows that these cells also play a role in regulating memory, and are part of a larger brain circuit that promotes balanced eating.

The belly and the brain

Historically, researchers have thought of feeding as a visceral, instinctive process: An animal smells or sees an appealing snack and, without hesitation, proceeds to eat said snack. However, an increasingly detailed picture is now emerging in which mental processes inform animals’ decision to either consume or refuse a meal.

A human, for example, may consider, “I’m supposed to be at brunch in 20 minutes, so I better save my appetite.” Though other mammals may not have the equivalent internal monologue, there is reason to suspect that their eating habits do involve complex cognition. For example, research has shown that defects in the hippocampus — a brain area involved in memory — can alter feeding behavior, suggesting that past experiences influence an animal’s attraction to food.

Read more at Rockefeller University