Meet Pennington Biomedical's Newest Faculty Member
If you have experienced depression or anxiety, research indicates that you may be at an increased risk for metabolic conditions such as obesity or type 2 diabetes.
"We know that metabolic disorders like obesity are sometimes connected to affective disorders such as anxiety or depression," said Dr. Emily Qualls-Creekmore. This phenomenon forms the basis for her research interests: "Essentially, how does our mood intertwine with our decision to eat more, less, or not at all?"
Qualls-Creekmore is setting out to answer this question as the newest faculty member at LSU's Pennington Biomedical Research Center. She was promoted to assistant professor after working as a postdoctoral researcher in the Central Leptin Signaling Department at Pennington Biomedical under the mentorship of Dr. Heike Muenzberg-Gruening.
Although her research doesn't focus solely on anxiety or depression, Qualls-Creekmore is interested in connections within the brain that drive both mood and feeding behavior.
"You often hear that when we are stressed, depressed, or anxious that we change our eating habits," Qualls-Creekmore said. "My recent work seems to indicate the existence of brain circuits which modulate both feeding and affective behavior, this may be a reason we have comorbidities like obesity and anxiety or depression. However, right now we don't know how these comorbidities develop. Does the stress cause the change in eating behavior or does the eating behavior cause the anxiety and depression?"
In the future, Qualls-Creekmore hopes to better understand the roles of certain neurons and brain pathways and how they impact our behavior and our mood. Eventually, her work could lay the foundation for treatments that help people avoid obesity and affective disorders by targeting specific receptors in the brain.
For now, we wanted to introduce you to the person behind the science.
Q: Congrats on your promotion to assistant professor! Of all the research institutions in the world you could have completed your postdoctoral research and joined the faculty, why did you choose Pennington Biomedical?
A: Pennington Biomedical is one of only a few centers in the world dedicated to the study of obesity and metabolic health. As a young researcher with interests in how human behavior shapes health outcomes, Pennington was an obvious choice for pursuing my research. I have been privileged to work with a brilliant team of scientists to study how the brain directs the behaviors and physiology that orchestrate metabolic outcomes. On top of all of that, Pennington has so many excellent Core Facilities which provide endless resources for carrying out cutting-edge biomedical research.
Q: Tell us a little bit about how you became interested in the connection between metabolic disorders and affective disorders such as anxiety and depression.
A. Anecdotally, we hear all the time how our mood or psychological state influences out eating behaviors. "Emotional eating" is a common term in our society, suggesting that individuals may overeat in order to cope with stress, anxiety, and depressed mood. The opposite can also occur where severely negative psychological states may decrease the desire to eat. There is research to suggest that metabolic hormones and neurotransmitters that affect feeding are also able to influence affective behaviors, however, the neurobiology behind these effects is understudied.
Q: What are your first few orders of business as a new faculty member? What goals do you have in mind for the next few years?
A. My first order of business will be to set up, fund, and staff my new research group, the Behavioral Neuroscience Laboratory. I am also conducting several research projects in the lab following up on our recent work indicating a role for specific subpopulations of lateral hypothalamic neurons in the control of affective behavior and feeding. Another important goal I have is to implement new technologies for use within our basic science division. I have recently been working to establish Fiber Photometry, a technique that allows us to record the activity of neurons (and potentially other excitable cells), in real time in an awake animal during specific behavioral or physiological events.
You can read more about Qualls-Creekmore's recent publication "Galanin-expressing GABA neurons in the lateral hypothalamus modulate food reward and non-compulsive locomotion" in The Journal of Neuroscience.
Qualls-Creekmore received her Ph.D. in 2013 from Louisiana State University School of Veterinary Medicine.
For more information on how you can support this and other projects at LSU’s Pennington Biomedical Research Center, visit www.pbrf.org.