What impact do our genes—and our brains—have on our ability to stop reaching for another chocolate chip cookie or scoop of ice cream?
To answer that question, Professor Monica Dus of the Department of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology at the UM College of Literature, Science, and the Arts has been awarded up to $110,000 annually for a maximum of five years from the Rita Allen Foundation. Dus, who was named a Rita Allen Foundation scholar on June 29, conducts research on how the environment shapes and reprograms brain and eating behaviors. She is the first faculty member from U-M to receive this prestigious award, which supports biomedical research by early-career scientists.
Dus’s lab examines how sugar changes the brain, seeking to find solutions to epidemics like obesity and other chronic diseases associated with unhealthy eating habits. To do this, the Dus lab works with fruit flies, which have surprisingly similar eating patterns to humans, share crucial disease genes, and have comparable metabolic pathways.
“We look at the flies’ behavior when they are hungry—how does their behavior change, and how is it directed by changes in brain activity?” says Dus. “Specifically, we want to know how those changes in brain activity are impacted by the environment and genes.”
Recently, Dus’s lab discovered that hungry fruit flies preferred real sugar over artificial sweeteners, because real sugar activated the brain to trigger a hormonal reaction that communicated information about the nutritional value of the meal, which the sugar substitute never delivered. That lack of feedback about the calorie content of the food could explain the recent observations that people tend to gain weight when they eat diet or sugar-free food and beverages.
The Rita Allen Foundation grant will allow Dus to expand this important research to address the effect of sugar on the brain. After a rigorous, multi-round application process, Dus was selected with four others from a pool of nine finalists to receive the $500,000 grant.
“It was amazing to be in the room with all of the brilliant people who made up the scientific advisory panel to talk about ideas and experiments. It was a wonderful experience!” says Dus of the interview process.
Dus earned her Ph.D. in biology at the Watson School of Biological Sciences in 2008, where she worked in Greg Hannon’s lab at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. She is an assistant professor of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology at UM and a member of the Michigan Nutrition and Obesity Research Center and the Michigan Diabetes Research Center.