Food is a basic part of psychological experience and how the nervous system functions. At the same time, it’s complex enough that there are all kinds of avenues to explore.

Kevin Myers in his lab

“I’ve always been interested in food because it’s a central aspect of life and of how people and animals organize their behavior,” says Professor Kevin Myers, psychology, whose research focuses on appetite in relation to pleasure and reward.

“Food is a basic part of psychological experience and how the nervous system functions. At the same time, it’s complex enough that there are all kinds of avenues to explore,” he says. “No matter what someone’s specialty is — psychology, geography, biochemistry, economics, history — there’s some connection to food.”

Myers’ work lies at the point where psychological experience meets what’s happening physiologically in the brain and body. “I try to parse out the psychological experiences that drive food-seeking,” he explains. “Is it the pleasure of eating that makes food motivating, or the satisfaction of feeling full, or some combination? Underlying the psychological experience are physiological events seen through things like neurotransmitters, hormones and metabolism. I’m looking at the connection between those two levels.”

Myers describes a situation that’s easy to imagine — you’re busy working when you smell chocolate chip cookies down the hall. Some people might notice but be able to easily get back to work. Others would find it so distracting that their attention would be steered toward finding those cookies.

“There’s a whole range of individual differences in experiences like that,” says Myers. “That’s what we mean by reward — the ability of something to grab and hold your attention and draw you away from other things. I’m interested in reward as motivation, the focus of desire as opposed to the consummation of something.”

He says that what we see happening in our modern food environment, including access to a huge variety of inexpensive, processed food and the rise in overeating and obesity, drives many of his research questions. “In the study of overeating and obesity in In humans, it’s very challenging to understand cause and effect because when you see a connection, it’s difficult to know if it’s a factor that led to a person becoming obese or a consequence of a history of overeating and obesity that has changed the body and the brain.”

In the lab, he and his students think about the psychological processes that shape our interaction with food through more basic levels in animal models — in this case, rats. They are trying to get at the main psychological drivers of food preferences and meal-patterning, like the pleasure of sweet or fat taste or what drives the motivation to seek out a food, and the way those involve attention, memory and learning.

The research team can control for many of these factors by doing things like rearing rats on different diets or watching from the beginning how their brain function and behavior change when they have a long history of consuming large amounts of sugar or have gained weight by eating a high-fat diet. “Ultimately, animal models give us a scaled-down, simpler environment that we can control,” he says, “which is central to identifying behavioral drivers in appetite and eating.”

Posted Sept. 22, 2016

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