Research

One of the oldest debates in biology is that of nature versus nurture:

Are our behaviors dictated by genes or by the environment?

Nutriepigenetics: does what we eat change our behaviors?

The broad goal of our lab is to understand how the dietary environment shapes brain and behavior. There is perhaps no other place where the roles of nature and nurture, gene and environment, are as tangled and mysterious as they are in the brain. While we understand how genes and neural circuits work together to drive behavior, we know relatively little of how the environment affects brain and behavior. Studies on the effect of maternal care, life adversity, drug addiction, and even pollution have highlighted the importance of these environments in reshaping the brain, but we know little about how the changes actually occur. Recent studies suggest that the environment affects brain and behavior by regulating the expression of genetic information within neurons through “neuroepigenetic” mechanisms. Thus, it should be possible to understand the effect of the environment on behavior and neural plasticity by measuring changes in gene expression, chromatin states, and neural activity .

In practice, this has proved challenging because it requires identifying a behavior affected by the environment and understanding the identity and physiology of the circuits that drive the behavior in different contexts. In the past few years my lab has circumvented these obstacles by demonstrating that a high sugar diet environment reshapes feeding behavior in Drosophila. Because of the relatively simple nervous system in flies and the well-established neurogenetic, imaging and gene-expression tools, we have the unique opportunity to discover how an environmental variable that is highly relevant to society, a hyper caloric diet, reshapes the brain to drive maladaptive eating behaviors and obesity.

Feeding is a complex behavior influenced by many different things, such as the taste of food, its nutrient content, reward value, and the animal net energy state. Which of these aspects are deregulated by diets in flies and is there any indication that similar changes may be promoting obesity in humans?

Our lab is tackling these questions by examining the effect of diets on different aspects of feeding behavior in fruit flies and rodents using techniques such as high resolution behavioral assays, in vivo imaging, optical recordings, metabolomics, and transcriptomics. If you are interested in multidisciplinary questions at the interface of plasticity, behavior, and gene regulation (even outside of diets!), please contact us, we would love to add you to our group!