Assistant Professor of Biomedical Sciences
2011 Way Klingler Young Scholar
What makes us dive into that second helping of mashed potatoes or guzzle a sweet drink? The answer is complicated.
“Wanting or needing to eat seems like a very simple concept,” said Dr. SuJean Choi, assistant professor of biomedical sciences and 2011 Way Klingler Young Scholar Award recipient. “You need something and your body tells you to go do it. But managing energy in your body is an extremely complex and exquisite system.”
Choi studies the neuroscience behind feeding behavior and body weight regulation. And when those complex processes misfire, it can lead to eating disorders, metabolic disorders or obesity.
Choi’s lab in the College of Health Sciences is examining the mechanisms underlying appetite suppressants. Many existing appetite suppression drugs work by manipulating serotonin, a neurotransmitter that contributes to feelings of well-being, so she is studying serotonin’s interaction with a specific neuropeptide, a signaling molecule. She hopes to discover why such drugs lose their effectiveness over time.
“How do we learn about how the brain is fighting back?” Choi asked. “The brain doesn’t know that we’re really overweight and we’d like to lose a few pounds so we can make it to our reunions. The brain only knows that the more food we have, the more likely we are to survive.”
A second focus of her lab is hypothalamic regulation of energy homeostasis, or how the body maintains metabolic equilibrium. The hypothalamus is the region in the brain associated with thirst, hunger, satiety and other functions. Choi is studying the hypothalamus as a site of action for appetite suppressants, but she also hopes to simply better understand that part of the brain. “What’s going on in there? What are some of the interesting signals we don’t understand yet?” she said.
Choi will use her sabbatical this fall to publish her latest results, apply for new grant funding and further her collaboration with Dr. David Baker, associate professor of biomedical sciences, who studies drug addiction. They believe that further study could reveal whether compulsive eaters would benefit from treatment similar to that used with drug addicts.