NIH awards $1.75 million to IUPUI to further explore a promising brain-obesity link

INDIANAPOLIS -- IUPUI biologist Nick Berbari has received a $1.75 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to study the connection between obesity and tiny hairlike projections on brain cells called cilia. Cilia are thought to function like a cell's antennae and help in communication between cells.

A researcher works on an experiment in Nick Berbari's labView print quality image
Berbari's research team is working to determine how altered signaling processes impact appetite regulation.

The knowledge Berbari and his research team acquire could potentially open new therapeutic approaches to obesity, which impacts the health and longevity of over 93 million Americans.

"With hunger, there is an initial urge to eat and to continue eating until feeling full," Berbari said. "Cilia dysfunction is known to be associated with certain types of obesity, but it is unclear why their dysfunction leads to people overeating and results in obesity."

"Put simply, we will be looking at how a little cellular antenna in the brain is important for appetite. When we study rare syndromes that are associated with obesity, we might learn important information and gain potentially therapeutically advantageous ideas about how to treat obesity in the general population."

The goal of Berbari's research, which will be conducted in mice, is to determine how altered signaling processes impact appetite regulation, feeding behavior and obesity. The research team includes a School of Science at IUPUI postdoctoral fellow, doctoral and masters' degree students, and several undergraduate research assistants.

The work, which will focus on the cilia located in the hypothalamus, a feeding center in the brain, is especially complex due to the large number of cellular communication pathways, many of which are interwoven.

Berbari doesn't anticipate finding a silver bullet to prevent obesity, but notes that "anytime you gain insight into how obesity occurs, you are learning something that might be useful for a pharmacological toolkit of potential drugs to prevent or treat the condition."

Two-thirds of adults in the United States are overweight, including the more than 93 million who are obese. Many diseases occur with increased frequency in adults as a consequence of obesity, including heart disease, stroke, Type 2 diabetes and certain types of cancer -- some of the leading causes of preventable premature human death.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that the estimated annual medical cost of obesity in the United States was $147 billion in 2008 and that the added yearly cost to the health care system for an individual with obesity was $1,429.

R01DK114008-01A1 from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases is a five-year award. School of Science faculty currently hold more than $20 million in external research funding.

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