Laura Holsen, PhD, Associate Psychologist
Division of Women's Health, BWH Department of Medicine
Can hormones play a part in what motivates us to eat? And if so, how can studying hormones help address such health issues as anorexia-the psychiatric condition with the highest death rate-and America's obesity epidemic?
These, and other questions, are at the center of research being conducted by Laura Holsen, PhD, who studies people at both extremes of the weight spectrum. Holsen, who joined BWH in 2007 after completing her post-doctorate work at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, recently sat down with CRN to answer a few questions.
How can studying hormones help us better understand eating disorders?
We know that there is an overlap between disordered eating-increases or decreases in appetite/food intake-and mood disturbances, for example, depression. This may be due to disruption within brain regions that process reward. But we don't yet know the neurobiological pathways behind these things.
It turns out that there are several hormones involved in appetite and mood that act on these regions of the brain involved in reward and making decisions about food intake. So by studying hormone levels while simultaneously collecting brain activity data, we will get a deeper understanding of the relationship between hormone levels and brain activity in regions involved with appetite, food intake and mood.
What have you learned so far from the
research you've conducted?
We found that lower levels of brain activity are significantly associated with abnormalities in the hormones in charge of appetite. People with chronic anorexia show lower levels of brain activity compared to healthy people in several brain regions linked to food intake and reward.
Also, we found that women who have recovered from anorexia also had lower brain activity levels in these regions, but to a lesser extent than in women with chronic anorexia.
This is an exciting finding because it is the first line of evidence showing that there is a relationship between hormone deficiency and brain activity abnormalities in those living with anorexia.
How will your research help people with eating disorders?
In the future, we hope our work will help us determine whether current treatments-whether behavioral, surgical or pharmacologic-might be used in a new way to change the neurobiological pathways associated with eating disorders.
If we can identify brain activity and hormone patterns that are associated with better treatment responses, this may help doctors predict how a patient with an eating disorder will respond to treatment. It might take a while to get to this stage, but the need is clearly there, and we're hopeful that our research will one day benefit those struggling with eating disorders.