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Dr. Jennifer Nasser: New Clues Shed Light on Eating Disorders

Current estimates are that 65% of the adult population in America is overweight or obese. Bookending the weight continuum, anorexia nervosa is associated with the highest rate of death among mental illnesses.

“Overconsumption of calories is the main driving force in the obesity epidemic,” Dr. Nasser remarks, “and under-consumption of calories drives the mortality rate of anorexia nervosa. Do these polar opposites share some etiological factors?

female researcher with headband“I think it’s clear that over and under consumption have a multitude of causes. To make sense of them we’re going to need a multi-faceted approach within a multidisciplinary framework.”

She applied an MS in Biochemistry and a PhD in Food Science and Nutrition to an NIH fellowship through the New York Obesity Research Center. Her studies of obesity and clinical nutrition led to a second NIH fellowship in addiction psychiatry through Columbia University’s Division on Substance Abuse.

Several concurrent studies make her labs among the busiest in Drexel’s Stratton Hall. She describes one that assesses the effect of a food deprivation state on food intake recall in lean and obese women.

Several concurrent studies make Nasser's labs among the busiest in Drexel’s Stratton Hall.

“A number of studies document underreporting of food intake in obese individuals. But no one has investigated the effect of manipulating physiological states of deprivation prior to asking people to recall what they ate during the previous 24 hours.

“We’re looking at how fruit flavored water or a chocolate liquid meal affect that memory, to get new data on the interaction of central and peripheral metabolism in food intake recall. It may help us minimize underreporting by creating a standardized condition for completing food intake questionnaires.”

In a series of studies of Binge Eating Disorder, Dr. Nasser and her team have demonstrated the first association of trait impulsivity with laboratory binge test meal evaluation. “And we’ve recorded the first demonstration of ‘sensitization’ toward food stimuli in Binge Eating Disorder.

“We’ve also shown that food in the mouth affects dopamine signaling in the retina. We’re using a variety of instrumental and self report procedures to assess dopamine-mediated mechanisms for over- and under-consumption.”

With a grin, Dr. Nasser reveals a new non-invasive imaging technique that will soon grace her lab. “We’re just now setting up our fNIR [functional nearinfrared spectroscope]. We’ll be able to measure brain activity under varying nutrient and metabolic conditions.”

The effects of an unhealthy relationship with food are sadly apparent. The CDC reports that “worldwide, the number of persons with diabetes has tripled since 1985” and points to rising obesity in China and other developing nations. “We know we have a problem, says Dr. Nasser, but we don’t understand the psychological and physiological causes.” Jennifer Nasser’s work is beginning to show some pathways through the wilderness.