Assistant Professor Kristen O’Connell of UTHSC Receives $1.6 Million Grant for Obesity Research

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A $1.6 million grant from the NIH will enable Dr. Kristen O’Connell and her research team to identify the changes that high-calorie diets have on the neural circuits that control appetite and food intake.
A $1.6 million grant from the NIH will enable Dr. Kristen O’Connell and her research team to identify the changes that high-calorie diets have on the neural circuits that control appetite and food intake.

Kristen O’Connell, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Physiology at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center (UTHSC), has received a grant totaling $1,607,325 from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, a subsidiary of the National Institutes of Health. The award will be used to support a project titled, “Modulation of AgRP Neuronal Excitability: Role of Diet and Body Weight.” The award will be distributed over a five-year period. Obesity is a major public health problem in the United States, particularly in Memphis and the Mid-South. At present, nearly 70 percent of adults are overweight or obese. Despite increased public health awareness, the obesity epidemic has not improved. The increased prevalence of childhood obesity suggests the problem is likely to worsen in the future. Research has shown that obesity is associated with dramatic changes in the parts of the brain that control appetite. These changes may compound the difficulty that so 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. The goal of Dr. O’Connell and her team 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. “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.” The National Institutes of Health (NIH), the nation’s medical research agency, includes 27 Institutes and Centers and is a component of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. NIH is the primary federal agency conducting and supporting basic, clinical, and translational medical research, and is investigating the causes, treatments, and cures for both common and rare diseases. For more information about NIH and its programs, visit www.nih.gov.