Dr. Marise Parent, professor and associate director of the Neuroscience Institute at Georgia State University, has received a three-year, $1.2 million federal grant to study how brain areas involved in memory control eating behavior.
The grant from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases of the National Institutes of Health will be used to explore how the hippocampus, a brain structure that is critical for memory and learning, inhibits eating behavior at a biochemical level. The project’s ultimate goal is to identify new pharmacological and behavioral strategies for treating diet-induced obesity and other eating-related disorders.
Parent is the principal investigator for the project. Georgia State collaborators include Dr. Daniel Cox, associate professor in the Neuroscience Institute, and Dr. Aaron Roseberry, associate professor in the Department of Biology, in addition to a scientist from the University of Iowa.
Parent and her colleagues hypothesize that memory can be a powerful tool for controlling eating behavior because it provides a record of recent energy intake that likely outlasts most physiological signals generated by a meal.
“When you decide what you’re going to eat, how much you’re going to eat and if you’re going to eat now, often those decisions are influenced by your memory of what you’ve recently eaten,” Parent said. “Your memory can keep a really good record of what you’ve just eaten and influence your future eating behavior, but we don’t know which brain areas accomplish this and how it is achieved at the biochemical level. That’s what we’ll study with this grant.”
Scientists recognize the brain influences humans to eat when there’s a need or deficiency and to feel good or experience pleasure.
“We have been arguing that it is important to consider the role of other kinds of controls in the brain that we call cognitive controls,” Parent said. “Those might actually be more easily modified by intervention, so we should really understand how those work if we want to understand problems associated with overeating or undereating. If you don’t understand how brain areas involved in cognition control eating, then your understanding of how the brain controls eating is incomplete.
“The other piece that’s interesting is that if you damage the hippocampus, it turns out you’ll eat sooner and you’ll overeat. A lot of things damage your hippocampus, like obesity, PTSD, depression, alcoholism and stress. So, all of those things might contribute to overeating through a novel mechanism that hasn’t been previously considered, by actually impairing your memory and impairing the functioning of this brain area.”