Symposium to explore obesity’s effects on brain

Hannah Reed

Kent State’s second annual neuroscience symposium will be held at the Kent State University Hotel and Conference Center in downtown Kent on Thursday and Friday.

The symposium will run from 7 p.m. to 9:15 p.m. Thursday and from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday. It will feature some of the nation’s top neuroscientists and their research on obesity and the brain.

Colleen Novak, assistant professor of biological sciences at Kent State, will be a featured speaker at the event.

“Some of the folks in the biology department wanted to start a symposium based on the strengths of different parts of the university,” Novak said, “This year’s theme is obesity.”

Tanya Falcone, a health sciences lecturer on campus, said obesity is defined as someone having a body mass index, or BMI, of 30 or above. Body mass index is calculated from a person’s height and weight and is a measure of his or her body fat.

“The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website said that in 2012, 13 states, including Ohio, had a prevalence of obesity equal to or greater than 30 percent,” Falcone said. “That’s really not good.”

Falcone said the chemicals people consume play a big role not only in determining their weight but also in their mental well-being.

“A lot of food we take in secretes a lot of tryptophan, which is found in turkey, but it actually helps to secrete serotonin, which is a really good neurotransmitter that regulates mood and sleep patterns,” Falcone said. “So we see that healthy foods can actually help do that, and they can help increase concentration.”

Falcone said that unhealthy eating and mental wellness can directly affect each other.

“Exercise will also help to secrete a lot of endorphins, so we do know that it affects mood, absolutely,” Falcone said. “And people that eat healthy tend to be happier because of that. We do see a positive correlation.”

John Gunstad, an assistant professor of psychology who is also studying the link between obesity and the brain, is moderating a panel discussion at the symposium.

 “Research has shown for quite some time now that when an individual gains weight, it has bad effects on the brain,” Gunstad said. “So people who are overweight or obese are at higher risk for things like memory loss, stroke and conditions like Alzheimer’s disease as they get older.”

Novak has also been studying the link between obesity and brain activity. However, she has focused on rats instead of humans. She is conducting a study of obesity-prone and obesity-resistant rats and how their brains control their activity.

“We know that the obesity-resistant rats are more physically active, and we know that that’s not necessarily because they are smaller,” Novak said, “It’s not their resting metabolism that’s really different — it’s their activity and energy expenditure.”

Novak said she has found that the lean rats burn more calories for their size and wanted to compare the brain control in the two types of rats to determine the reason.

“We focus on this brain peptide system that is one of many but looks to be particularly important with modulating how active they are and also modulating their bodies’ metabolism,” Novak said.

Gunstad said that in terms of obesity rates for schools in Ohio, Kent State is fairly average.

“We noticed that students who are overweight are at higher risk for having problems with their classes,” Gunstad said. “They are at higher risk for dropping out of school before they get their degree than somebody who is at a normal weight.”

Contact Hannah Reed at [email protected].