Psychologist Laura Holsen, PhD, explains how hormones can affect your appetite.

Can hormones play a part in what motivates us to eat? And, if so, how can studying hormones help address health issues such as anorexia or obesity?

These, and other questions, are at the heart of research being done by Brigham and Women’s Hospital psychologist Laura Holsen, PhD, Division of Women’s Health, Department of Medicine, who recently took some time to answer a few questions about how hormones may affect people at both ends of the weight spectrum.

  • How can studying hormones help us better understand eating disorders?

We know that there is an overlap between eating disorders and mood disturbances such as depression. This may be due to disruption within the brain regions that process reward.

It turns out that there are several hormones involved in appetite and mood that act on these regions of the brain involved in reward and making decisions about food intake. So by studying hormone levels while collecting brain activity data, we will get a deeper understanding of the relationship between hormone levels and brain activity in regions involved with appetite, food intake, and mood.

  • What have you learned so far from the research you’ve conducted?

We found that lower levels of brain activity are significantly associated with abnormalities in the hormones in charge of appetite. People with chronic anorexia, compared to healthy people, show lower levels of activity in several regions of the brain that are linked to food intake and reward.

Also, we found that women who have recovered from anorexia also had lower brain activity levels in these regions, but to a lesser extent than in women with chronic anorexia.

Importantly, we found that the decreased brain activity was associated with hormone levels in these individuals. This is an exciting finding, because it is the first line of evidence showing that there is a relationship between hormone deficiency and brain activity abnormalities in those living with anorexia.

  • How will your research help people with eating disorders? 

In the future, we hope our work will help us determine whether current treatments – such as counseling or medication – might be used in a new way to change the nervous system pathways associated with eating disorders.

If we can identify brain activity and hormone patterns that are associated with better treatment responses, this may help doctors predict how a patient with an eating disorder will respond to treatment. It might take a while to get to this stage, but the need is clearly there, and we’re hopeful that our research will one day benefit those struggling with eating disorders.

- MMQ, Chris P

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