Research done on brain circuitry may help treat obesity, anorexia

Katy Mueller

When it comes to conditions like obesity and anorexia, there is more to them than may meet the eye.

Researcher Shane Hentges, an associate professor in the Department of Biomedical Sciences, is trying to figure out what exactly it is that changes in the brain when people develop obesity or anorexia.

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“We are looking at what happens to lead to things like obesity or anorexia as a long term consequence,” Hentges said. “Because certainly, your brain circuitry changes in response to maintaining an altered body weight for a long period of time.”

Hentges and her associate researchers are discovering that it may not be as easy as it looks to alter the body weight a person has had for a while. They are taking a close look at the neurons that are responsible for signaling to brain that it is time for a person to stop eating in hopes of finding answers to their questions.

“We are hypothesizing that if those neurons are overactive, that would lead to anorexia,” Hentges said. “And, if they are underactive, they would lead to obesity. That is certain. There are human mutations in which the neurotransmitters coming out of those neurons are not correct and those humans are extremely obese.”

Freshman Sarah Miller said finding answers to why so many people suffer from this would hopefully stop body shaming.

“It’s sad that girls get shamed for being to skinny or too fat,” Miller said. “There are always pictures of body goals on the Internet and it makes me self-conscious. It would be helpful if people found out that sometimes a person who is struggling with losing weight may actually not be able to control it.” 

In the world of medicine though, anorexia is not as thoroughly studied as obesity. Due to the lack of resources spent toward learning more about anorexia, Hentges said it does not seem to be as easy to treat. Because of this, Hentges hopes to find something from a physiological standpoint to help explain why it is so difficult to overcome as much as obesity can be.

“Anorexia is super controversial, and it is classified as a mental health disorder,” Hentges said. “But, we are looking at it from the aspect of there is certainly an underlying physiological change in probably the feeding circuitry of the brain. That maybe there are some events that have to happen to trigger that somewhat, but something definitely changes.”

What they have found so far is that there is more to having anorexia or obesity than they originally thought. Her goal with this study is to find a way to help better treat those with these conditions and change the view that society has on people with obesity or anorexia.

“It’s interesting to me because we don’t tell people with other diseases or disorders to ‘just stop it’,” Hentges said. 

Hentges wants to break the social stigma surrounding obesity and anorexia, as well as provide effective treatments to help people recover. Her hope is to create pharmaceuticals that will be beneficial to those who need them and not something that ends up doing more harm than good. Alongside this, Miller said that more people should also have to learn about conditions like obesity and anorexia so that it helps them be more understanding of how difficult these things can be to get through.

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“I think that studies like this should be advertised instead of just the bad stuff because I really doubt that making people feel bad about themselves is going to help them get better,” she said.

Collegian reporter  Katy Mueller can be reached on news@collegian.com or on Twitter @katymueller13