How Is the Brain Involved in Humanity’s Recent Growth Spurt?

Scientists have discovered a brain receptor that allows people to grow taller when they have the food and resources they need.
Scientists have discovered a brain receptor that allows people to grow taller when they have the food and resources they need.

You might look at the towering size of today’s basketball players and surmise that people seem to be getting taller every generation. It's well known that most of us are taller than our ancestors were just a couple of centuries ago. This trend for ever-increasing height seems to be linked to better health and food supply, but how exactly does it work?

In 2021, a team of researchers led by the University of Cambridge discovered the elusive regulator for human growth – and what triggers it. Found among our hypothalamic neurons, the brain receptor responsible for people growing taller and reaching puberty earlier is called MC3R, which is short for “melanocortin 3 receptor.” This receptor controls the release of hormones that regulate growth and sexual maturation and is linked to certain nutritional signals. Scientists have also determined that the inverse is true with MC3R: If the receptors don’t function properly, people tend to be shorter and enter puberty later.

Getting taller all the time:

  • Scientists already knew that humans who eat well and have access to plentiful food sources tend to grow taller and mature more quickly. MC3R is what tells the brain about the body's nutritional health, thus triggering growth.

  • As an illustration of how much taller people are these days than they were just a century ago, the average height in the United Kingdom increased by 3.9 inches (10 cm) during the 20th century.

  • "Identifying the pathway in the brain whereby nutrition turns into growth and puberty explains a global phenomenon of increasing height and decreasing age at puberty that has puzzled scientists for a century,” explained University of Cambridge researcher Stephen O'Rahilly.

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    • Scientists have discovered a brain receptor that allows people to grow taller when they have the food and resources they need.
      By: Roman Gorielov
      Scientists have discovered a brain receptor that allows people to grow taller when they have the food and resources they need.