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Psychiatry Newsletter - The Brain's Role in Eating

Hopkins BrainWise Spring 2014

The Brain's Role in Eating

Date: May 1, 2014


Tim Moran
Timothy Moran, director of Johns Hopkins’ Behavioral Neuroscience Lab and vice chair for research affairs.

Why is basic psychiatric research a critical component in staunching the obesity epidemic that’s sweeping the world?

One of the core underpinnings of psychiatry is the science of behavior. And among the most fundamental of behaviors are the hard-wired, motivated behaviors necessary for survival: sleep, sex, drinking, eating. In short, our brains have developed complex neural signaling systems that launch, maintain and regulate these essential functions.

What’s become clear from decades of research on such psychiatric disorders as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder is that when brain signaling goes awry, so does behavior. Now, similar research here and elsewhere is showing tantalizing neural links between the hypothalamus (the brain’s “feeding” center) and the dopamine (“reward”) system.

Projects underway in our lab, for example, have focused on brain/gut peptides as feedback mediators of satiety and how signals arising from these peptides interact with hypothalamic signaling systems that mediate energy balance; interactions between exercise and food intake; how alterations in cellular energy availability and production result in signals that modify food intake; and how developmental and epigenetic factors can produce long-term alterations in neural signaling that bias the organism’s long-term metabolic phenotype.

Understanding how malfunctions in these neural mechanisms contribute to eating disorders and obesity—and their relationships to processes that also underlie smoking, drug abuse and similar addictions—has wide-ranging public health implications.

To reduce both the health and economic costs associated with obesity and eating disorders, we need to understand how to help change the behaviors.

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