Candidate: I am a Postdoctoral Research Associate within the Bowles Center for Alcohol Studies and the UNC Center of Excellence for Eating Disorders in the Departments of Pharmacology and Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Career Goals: My ultimate goal is to understand the neural circuits that regulate palatable food intake that contribute to diseases like obesity and binge eating disorder. By researching the underlying signaling pathways and molecular circuitry in these neurochemically defined neuron ensembles, I will develop targeted, novel preclinical treatments for obesity and binge eating disorder for testing in construct valid animal models of obesity and binge eating disorder. Career Development: My current expertise is in molecular neuroscience and genetics, so I hope to gain additional mentored training in 1) neural circuits including photometry, advanced optogenetics, chemogenetics, and electrophysiology; 2) mouse operant behavior; and 3) clinical obesity phenotypes and metabolism within the current proposal. Research Project: This project leverages preliminary data that shows a specific role for prepronociceptin-expressing neurons in the central amygdala (PnocCeA neurons) in: promoting palatable food intake, modulating the severity of diet-induced obesity, and promoting reward through its inputs to the parabrachial nucleus (PBN) and nucleus of the solitary tract (NTS).
I aim to 1) measure the dynamic activity state of PnocCeA neurons during operant palatable food intake using in vivo fiber photometry, 2) determine the role of nociceptin signaling in the PBN and NTS on neural activity and the requisite role of this pathway in operant palatable food intake, and 3) use pathway- specific inhibitory optogenetics and chemogenetics to probe the specific role of the PnocCeA pathway to the PBN and NTS during operant palatable food intake. In future independent applications (R01s), I will assess circuit and molecular plasticity of PnocCeA networks following chronic palatable food access and diet-induced obesity. Environment: Research will be primarily performed at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with some experiments performed at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences research program at Research Triangle Park in Durham, NC. Mentorship: The core mentorship team consists of Dr. Thomas Kash, lead mentor, who is a leading researcher in circuit neuroscience and consummatory behavior, and Dr. Cynthia Bulik, co-lead mentor, who is a nationally renowned expert in obesity and eating disorder research. Dr. Kari North, a co-mentor, is a leading researcher in clinical obesity phenotyping and genetics. Dr. Joyce Besheer, a co-mentor, is a very experienced researcher in rodent operant behavior. Dr. Guohong Cui and Dr. Michael Krashes, both consultants, have equipment for and routinely use in vivo fiber photometry of genetically encoded Ca2+ indicators in awake, freely-behaving mice. Dr. Todd Thiele, a consultant, is an expert in neuropeptide signaling and local pharmacological manipulations during mouse behavior. Together, they will provide expertise to accomplish the scientific aims, mentorship for me to complete my training, and leadership to promote my transition to being an independent investigator.
Obesity is a growing health epidemic, is mediated by a combination of environmental and biological factors, and is driven by an excess of energy intake relative to energy expenditure. Food consumption, particularly of energy-dense, highly palatable foods, can increase weight gain and body adiposity. The brain mediates all behavior, including feeding, and multiple circuits in the brain have been identified that can either drive or suppress food intake. In this proposal, I will investigate how a novel neuropeptide-expressing neural circuit in the amygdala, the brain's emotional center, can drive palatable food consumption and reward behavior.