Scheme: Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowship
Organisation: University of Cambridge
Dates: Oct 2010-Sep 2015
Summary: In our daily lives we are constantly bombarded with images and messages linked to food. Whether or not we choose to eat is often affected by our emotional state. Both stress and anxiety can strongly influence our eating habits by either depressing or enhancing our appetite, potentially leading to under- or overeating. In extreme cases, the ability to control our drive to eat goes awry, sometimes developing into an eating disorder. In the UK alone it is estimated that eating disorders affect 1.6 million people, 90% of which are female, making the treatment and prevention of eating disorders a clinical priority. However, treating eating disorders has proven difficult as many psychological factors can impact our eating habits. For instance, food consumption is powerfully influenced by emotional cues that are unrelated to energy requirements. As research has begun to explore the neural mechanisms mediating appetite and emotion, it is becoming increasingly clear that to make progress in the prevention and treatment of eating disorders we must first understand the neural circuits that link the two.
The lateral hypothalamus and the amygdala are two brain regions critical for appetite and emotion, respectively. Disruptions of the hypothalamus can result in severe abnormalities in an animal’s feeding behaviour, such that some animals under-eat and are thus significantly leaner than normal animals, while others become lethargic and overeat, eventually becoming obese. Dysfunction in the amygdala, a region critical for emotional learning, has been linked to anxiety disorders as disruptions in amygdala function can strongly affect an animal’s ability to cope with environmental stressors. Interestingly, the amygdala and lateral hypothalamus are anatomically connected indicating that the link between appetite and emotion may reside in the functional connections between the two. Despite the clear psychological link between emotion and appetite, few studies have investigated the imp