Throughout the United States, more than 30 million men and women are affected by eating disorders1, with one person dying from eating disorders approximately every 52 minutes2. Widely misunderstood, these disorders are a serious spectrum of potentially fatal mental and physical illnesses that can affect anyone, regardless of age, gender, race or socioeconomic status. While treatable, the exact causes of these disorders is not clear, but scientists like Max Planck Florida’s Dr. Sarah Stern are seeking to better understand the role that the brain plays in these devastating conditions.
Stern has recently joined MPFI as a Research Group Leader, where she will start her own lab focusing on these and other critical questions about the biological basis of behavior. The Stern Lab uses state-of-the-art technologies to help identify and understand what parts of our brains — from circuits to molecules – help us to learn and motivate the complicated behaviors that shape our existence, such as feeding.
In ideal conditions, we should eat when we are hungry and stop when we are full. However, obesity and eating disorders are prevalent worldwide and are not typically caused by a singular defect, but are now know to be caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors. What, then, are the environmental factors that lead to unhealthy eating habits?
From her previous research at Rockefeller University, Dr. Stern has learned a great deal about how environmental cues lead to overeating. Through her work with mouse models, she has found a circuit from the insular cortex to the central amygdala that affects the signals that our body shares with our brain when we are hungry. She also studies how acute environmental stress leads creates changes to the brain’s circuitry and can lead to sustained decreases in consumption through a lateral septum to lateral hypothalamus circuit. As she begins her lab at MPFI, Stern hopes to learn even more about the underlying mechanisms that affect behaviors and leads to conditions such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia, obesity, and dysmorphia.
With the exception of opioid addiction, eating disorders are the deadliest of mental illnesses, claiming more than 10,000 lives annually3. But scientists like those in the Stern lab are working to better understand the causes of these terrible afflictions so that more lives can be saved.
If you or anyone you know is suffering from an eating disorder, there are resources to help you. Please visit the National Eating Disorder Association (https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/) or National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (https://anad.org/) for support and resources.