Scientists have found that a new estrogen-based compound may help prevent binge eating.

Binge eating, an eating disorder in which a person frequently consumes unusually large amounts of food in a short period of time, is more common in women than men.

Researchers at the Children’s Nutrition Research Center at Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital found that the hormone estrogen can trigger brain serotonin neurons to inhibit binge eating in female mice.

“Previous data has shown that women who have irregular menstrual cycles tend to be more likely to binge eat, suggesting that hormones in women play a significant role in the development or prevention of the behaviour,” said Dr Yong Xu, assistant professor of pediatrics and senior author of the paper.

In the study, Xu and colleagues first found that estrogen can strongly inhibit binge eating in mice, which was consistent with data in humans.

“We can speculate that in women who develop binge eating who also happen to have irregular menstrual cycles, it is probably because their estrogen function is somehow damaged, which is what leads to the development of binge eating,” said Xu.

Xu and colleagues then determined what receptor was mediating the estrogen effect on binge eating and where this receptor was located.

Using genetic mouse models, they found that the estrogen receptor—alpha, expressed by serotonin neurons in the brain, mediates the effect of estrogen to suppress binge eating.

However, the current estrogen therapy produces detrimental effects, such as high risk of breast cancer.

Xu’s collaborators at Indiana University developed a compound called GLP—1—estrogen, which was a conjugate between the peptide GLP—1 and estrogen.

The idea was that GLP—1 would be used to carry the estrogen and deliver it to a region where there are GLP—1 receptors as well as estrogen receptors and the estrogen would be released there, producing a biological function.

Researchers at Indiana University reported that this compound was good for body weight control and would not increase the risk of breast cancer because the compound did not deliver estrogen to the breast tissue.

Xu and colleagues used this compound to show that when a systemic injection of this compound is given in mice, there is increased activity of estrogen in the serotonin region of the brain, meaning the compound can deliver estrogen in the serotonin region where they believed binge behaviour is regulated.

They further showed that the compound substantially inhibits binge eating in mice.

The study is published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation.