Few people see much in common between candy and cocaine, aside from their identical first letters. Not so for Matt Will, Assistant Professor of Psychology. Will’s current research equates our cravings for fatty, high-calorie foods with serious drug abuse.
Will examines the neurochemistry that controls the intake of these types of foods, and “gives us the craving for foods such as ice cream.” Through their experiments, Will and his team of graduate and undergraduate students have found that the chemistry driving food intake is comparable to the chemistry driving drug addiction.
Experiments in the Behavioral Neuroscience Lab are conducted with rat models. The researchers surgically implant tubes into the rat brain and then “use a map of the brain to target specific regions that we know are involved in drug addiction and all the feeding processes.” After implanting the tubes, the researchers inject different drugs into the regions, including opioids, feel-good chemicals that cause rats to binge eat. Next, says Will, “we look at other brain regions and how they cooperate with the opioids to allow this binge eating to occur.”
As Will explains, the reason behind this binge eating isn’t increasing hunger—rather, “it is increasing the palatability of the food.” When people eat high-fat foods, these foods release opioids in the brain, and “these feel-good chemicals make the food taste better, just like ice cream tastes better than broccoli to most people.” This is no recent development in our neurochemistry. According to Will, humans “were programmed through evolution to seek out foods that are high in energy.” Tens of thousands of years ago, food was less plentiful and people endured periods of famine and food shortage in which eating high quantities of calories in one sitting made sense—thus, modern-day people are genetically coded to do the same, drawn to the high-fat, high-sugar foods that cause obesity. In this way, we humans are “fighting our own biology.”
So how can we combat our biology and overcome obesity when our neurochemistry programs us to eat unhealthily? Will hopes that his research will serve as “ground work to think beyond,” so that a pharmacologist could design drugs to counteract or lessen the effects of opioids on our appetites. Though he admits “the research is a bit far from developing the drug,” he is optimistic about the future as he conducts these experiments. He hopes that his research will make people realize that they “need more willpower”—though our brains are programmed to seek out high-calorie foods, we need to control ourselves and counteract these evolutionary eating habits.
In addition to his primary study of food and drug abuse, Will is also collaborating with a colleague in the Department of Nutrition and Exercise Physiology to study the connections between exercise and addiction. In this connection Will and Frank Booth study the “runner’s high” in rats. Like drugs or fatty foods, Will explains, “running is one of these things that produces natural rewarding chemicals in the brain. By measuring the distances run and looking at how their diets change, Will can analyze differences in the brain and “parallels between what we expect in an addicted brain compared to the non-addicted brain.”
Interestingly, because addiction to exercise produces the same neurochemical effect as addiction to “high-fat palatable food” or drugs, Will says that exercise can serve as a treatment plan for drug as well as food addictions. “They all fall under this umbrella of rewarding events,” Will notes. “All rewarding events have the potential to deregulate your system, and you can become addicted to them,” whether that involves gambling, eating fatty, high-caloric food, or even exercising. “If you have someone who is a drug addict, or someone who is overeating because of an addiction—then if you can introduce another natural reinforcer, such as exercise, you might be able to reduce the addiction level to the substance that you are trying to wean him off of. That’s how it all theoretically fits together.”
Other collaborative connections that Will has made include a study on autism and food intake conducted with neurologist David Beversdorf. The team researched how the diets of mice, along with their exposure to stress, affected the later onset of autism in their offspring. As he explains, exploring the mothers’ eating habits is a given because “the diet is some type of trigger that could affect the development of the fetus.” Examining the interaction between stress and diet is imperative as well: there is correlational evidence that human mothers who “are exposed to stress in areas of the world that have the type of diet that we’ve been giving these mice do have a higher incidence of autism.” Using controlled conditions in the lab, Will and Beversdorf measure the autism-like symptoms the mice demonstrate, including deficits in sociability, communication, and learning. Will hopes that this research could help expectant human mothers, so that high-risk pregnant mothers could lessen the chances of autism in their children by altering their gestational diet to lessen the influence of high-stress situations.
Notably, much of Will’s research has resulted from his cross-disciplinary, collaborative approach. Trained as a behaviorist looking at how to model certain behaviors in rats, he is often approached by other researchers who want to analyze behavior in their models. More than just a consultant, Will says that by breaking out of his niche and interacting with faculty in different departments, he has learned more about his own projects: “By doing this other project that was at first unrelated, you find out that it actually does give you more inspiration for your own project and helps your original focus.”
Aside from cross-disciplinary collaboration, Will notes that teaching provides additional inspiration for his research. When presenting research to students—“fresh minds that have no pre-conceived ideas”—he gets questions he hasn’t thought of because he is “so deep into it.” In this way, his students offer a new look at the data; as he explains, “it's really helpful to bounce these ideas off students.”
Likewise, Will finds that incorporating his research into teaching is a seamless process. For example, he teaches an undergraduate course in physiological psychology and a graduate course in functional neuroscience. “We end up studying sensory systems like taste, and then homeostatic systems, such as feeding,” he notes. “My research falls right into that, so I always try to give them a little window into the research field, of what it’s like to be a researcher. I provide them with what I think is more of the cutting-edge science than what they would get from the textbook.”
Many of Will’s students eventually approach him about opportunities in the lab, so he has a team of undergraduates and graduates alike who pursue independent projects or help him conduct experiments. No matter the project, the students are trained in surgery and behavioral analysis, which is a “very critical experience” for those considering further study and research.
From appetite and addiction to autism and exercise, Will’s research reaches many audiences. If his research goals are achieved, he could help lessen the prevalence of obesity, drug abuse, and neurodevelopmental disorders. As it turns out, there is much more in common between candy and cocaine than one would think.