Growing up, conversations about food were commonplace in Sarah Stern’s household, given her mother’s work as a nutritionist. But it was an undergraduate psychology class that got Stern interested in eating disorders and the neurobiology underlying them.
“My goal was to try to find comprehensive neural mechanisms that would explain how the brain actually mediates overconsumption or restricted eating behaviors,” she said.
In research on mice at Rockefeller University, she found a population of neurons located in an understudied region of the brain called the insular cortex that were necessary for overeating. She found that the mice didn’t overeat when she inhibited the functioning of the NOS1 neurons.
“What’s amazing is that it means that there are parts of our brain that are actually specialized to control feeding just based on learning, and not based on how hungry or satiated you are,” Stern said. “We might be able to target those particular neurons therapeutically with drugs.”
She is now trying to figure out if the same brain circuit might be involved in anorexia nervosa, which has one of the highest mortality rates of any psychiatric disorder.
— Priyanka Runwal