UTHSC Professor Receives $1.6 Million Grant For Obesity Research

There’s nothing wrong with enjoying a cheeseburger and fries or cold milkshake on a hot summer day, but over-indulging in delights like these can lead to an undesirable outcome: obesity. And unfortunately, this medical condition affects one in three adults in America.

A University of Tennessee Health Science Center (UTHSC) professor has been awarded a million dollar grant to research the causes of obesity.

Kristen O’Connell, assistant professor for UTHSC’s Department of Physiology, along with her research team, received a $1.6 million grant from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, a subsidiary of the National Institutes of Health.

O’Connell will use the grant, which will be distributed over a five-year period, to support a project titled, “Modulation of AgRP Neuronal Excitability: Role of Diet and Body Weight.” The goal of the project is to identify the changes that high-calorie diets have on the neural circuits that control appetite and food intake.

“We hope to better understand the molecular basis of these changes, as well as how quickly they occur and whether they are reversible,” said Dr. O’Connell in a statement. “Our results will hopefully lead to better, safer therapies for obesity and appetite control. In addition, we would like to learn how environmental factors, such as diet, influence flexibility in these key areas of the brain that control appetite, and ultimately identify ways to restore appropriate control of hunger and food intake.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than one-third (or 78.6 million) of U.S. adults are obese. And 17 percent of children and adolescents aged 2 to 19 years old are obese.

Obesity is associated with dramatic changes in the parts of the brain that control appetite, according to the UTHSC. These changes may compound the difficulty that many people have in losing weight and keeping it off, since the brain is effectively telling them they are hungry, even if there is no reason to be.

Obesity-related conditions (also the leading causes of preventable death) include heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and certain types of cancer, according to the CDC. The estimated annual medical cost of obesity in the U.S. was $147 billion in 2008. The medical costs for people who are obese were $1,429 higher than those of normal weight.

By Louis Goggans

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