From sensory circumventricular organs to cerebral cortex: Neural pathways controlling thirst and hunger

Michael J. McKinley, Derek A. Denton, Philip J. Ryan, Song T. Yao, Aneta Stefanidis, Brian J. Oldfield

Research output: Contribution to journalReview ArticleResearchpeer-review

13 Citations (Scopus)


Much progress has been made during the past 30 years with respect to elucidating the neural and endocrine pathways by which bodily needs for water and energy are brought to conscious awareness through the generation of thirst and hunger. One way that circulating hormones influence thirst and hunger is by acting on neurones within sensory circumventricular organs (CVOs). This is possible because the subfornical organ and organum vasculosum of the lamina terminalis (OVLT), the sensory CVOs in the forebrain, and the area postrema in the hindbrain lack a normal blood-brain barrier such that neurones within them are exposed to blood-borne agents. The neural signals generated by hormonal action in these sensory CVOs are relayed to several sites in the cerebral cortex to stimulate or inhibit thirst or hunger. The subfornical organ and OVLT respond to circulating angiotensin II, relaxin and hypertonicity to drive thirst-related neural pathways, whereas circulating amylin, leptin and possibly glucagon-like peptide-1 act at the area postrema to influence neural pathways inhibiting food intake. As a result of investigations using functional brain imaging techniques, the insula and anterior cingulate cortex, as well as several other cortical sites, have been implicated in the conscious perception of thirst and hunger in humans. Viral tracing techniques show that the anterior cingulate cortex and insula receive neural inputs from thirst-related neurones in the subfornical organ and OVLT, with hunger-related neurones in the area postrema having polysynaptic efferent connections to these cortical regions. For thirst, initially, the median preoptic nucleus and, subsequently, the thalamic paraventricular nucleus and lateral hypothalamus have been identified as likely sites of synaptic links in pathways from the subfornical organ and OVLT to the cortex. The challenge remains to identify the links in the neural pathways that relay signals originating in sensory CVOs to cortical sites subserving either thirst or hunger.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere12689
Number of pages13
JournalJournal of Neuroendocrinology
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 1 Mar 2019


  • area postrema
  • circumventricular organs
  • hunger
  • organum vasculosum of the lamina terminalis
  • subfornical organ
  • thirst

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