Unraveling how our brains and our genes shape our desire to eat yet another cupcake is something that neuroscience researcher Monica Dus would like to figure out. She has just been awarded a 2016 National Institutes of Health Director's New Innovator Award for $2 million over five years to fund her research into how nutrients in the diet play a key role in regulating our eating behavior by changing the activity of neurons in the brain. Dus is an assistant professor in the Department of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology, (MCDB) in the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts.
For her research, she feeds fruit flies different diets and then looks at how neurons in the fly brains respond to the nutrient levels. She is looking for how chemical changes related to diet permanently alter the function of neurons and the fruit fly’s behavior. Fruit flies are useful models for human nutrition-brain studies because they have similar eating patterns to humans, and have comparable metabolic pathways, but a much smaller brain with similar chemistry, which makes it easier to understand how different diets, such as a high sugar one, can change the brain.
Her work is based in epigenetics--changes to genes from environmental influences, such as what we eat or drink, that don’t alter the DNA blueprint, but instead control whether the genes are turned on or off. Epigenetics has been shown to influence many aspects of our behavior, from stress to drug addiction. Now the Dus lab wants to understand how it can lead to overeating.
“This will pave the way to understanding how the increased consumption of calories is linked to diseases such as depression, cancer, aging and neurodegeneration,” Dus says.
Her experiments will identify in detail the molecular and physiological adaptations of a cellular system to a changing environment, develop new methodologies to study metabolism, and new computational tools to get insights from datasets. Her U-M collaborators include Peter Freddolino’s lab in Biological Chemistry, Alla Karnovsky’s lab in Computational Medicine and Bioinformatics, and Robert Kennedy’s lab in Chemistry.
The New Innovator Award supports novel approaches to solving major challenges in biomedical research by exceptionally creative new investigators. Dus is the second scientist in MCDB to receive this award. Assistant professor Sara Aton was an awardee in 2013 for her research on how sleep affects memories. Only about 40 such awards are made each year , nation-wide.
“That we have two scientists in this department with these awards is a testament to the strength of neuroscience research in MCDB,” says Robert Denver, chair of the Department of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology. “The Innovator awards are a vote of confidence in their research.”