The arcuate nucleus is generally conserved across vertebrate taxa in its neuroanatomy and neuropeptide expression. Gene expression of agouti-related protein (AGRP), neuropeptide Y (NPY), pro-opiomelanocortin (POMC), and cocaine- and amphetamine-regulated transcript (CART) has been established in the arcuate nucleus of several bird species and co-localization demonstrated for AGRP and NPY. The proteins encoded by these genes exert comparable effects on food intake in birds after central administration to those seen in other vertebrates, with AGRP and NPY being orexigenic and CART and α-melanocyte-stimulating hormone anorexigenic. We have focused on the measurement of arcuate nucleus AGRP and POMC expression in several avian models in relation to the regulation of energy balance, incubation, stress, and growth. AGRP mRNA and POMC mRNA are, respectively, up- and downregulated after energy deprivation and restriction. This suggests that coordinated changes in the activity of AGRP and POMC neurons help to drive the homeostatic response to replace depleted energy stores in birds as in other vertebrates. While AGRP and POMC expression are generally positively and negatively correlated with food intake, respectively, we review here situations in some avian models in which AGRP gene expression is dissociated from the level of food intake and may have an influence on growth independent of changes in appetite. This suggests the possibility that the central melanocortin system exerts more pleiotropic functions in birds. While the neuroanatomical arrangement of AGRP and POMC neurons and the sensitivity of their activity to nutritional state appear generally conserved with other vertebrates, detailed knowledge is lacking of the key nutritional feedback signals acting on the avian arcuate nucleus and there appear to be significant differences between birds and mammals. In particular, recently identified avian leptin genes show differences between bird species in their tissue expression patterns and appear less closely linked in their expression to nutritional state. It is presently uncertain how the regulation of the central melanocortin system in birds is brought about in the situation of the apparently reduced importance of leptin and ghrelin compared to mammals.
- melanocortin 4 receptor