Forward Thinking

Research Explores Prenatal Influence on Obesity

Assistantship student Katelynn Ondek ‘14 works in Erin Keen-Rhinehart’s lab, studying the link between prenatal nutrition and obesity.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2.4 million more Americans were obese in 2009 than in 2007. Every U.S. state has at least a 15 percent obesity rate among adults, and the 2007–08 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey estimated 17 percent of 2- to 19-year-olds are obese. But some unlikely help for this dilemma just might be found in hamsters.

In collaboration with Lehigh University, Assistant Professor of Biology Erin Keen-Rhinehart studied pregnant hamsters and their offspring. Animal experiments were conducted at Lehigh while brain analyses were done in Keen-Rhinehart’s lab. The experiment prevented one group of pregnant hamsters from hoarding.

“Hamsters, unlike rats, use food hoarding as a normal part of their ingestive behavior. This hoarding behavior is similar to humans storing food in the pantry, refrigerator or freezer for later consumption,” explains Keen-Rhinehart.

The offspring of the restricted group had higher body weights, more abdominal fat, more plasma insulin and increased food intake compared to those of the unrestricted group. This difference in food intake might be connected to increased neuropeptide Y production in the brain in the restricted group’s offspring.

These physiological and behavioral changes resemble those in people and rats subjected to impaired prenatal nutrition. Knowledge gained from this research may increase understanding of ingestive behaviors and, therefore, aid in the development of obesity treatments.

Amanda Teeple ’11, Samantha Cartwright ’11, Samantha Moyer ’11 and Katelynn Ondek ’14 work with Keen-Rhinehart. Teeple and Cartwright accompanied her to the Society for Neuroscience’s National Neuroscience Meeting to share their findings.

“The event was an amazing opportunity that entailed research from different areas pertaining to the neuroscience field. It was very exciting to present our research at a national meeting. It was my first opportunity to attend a meeting of this size,” Teeple says.

Ondek, Keen-Rhinehart’s assistantship student, relished the opportunity to perform research in her freshman year and submit her work nationally. Her research, like that of the other students working in the lab—several of whom served as upperclass mentors to her—focused on a single neuropeptide and its levels in the offspring from both groups.

Although a lot has been accomplished thus far, Keen- Rhinehart plans to repeat the original study. The complex subject matter demands examination of other proteins in the brain and their possible effects on food intake. “We are really just at the beginning stages of this project,” Keen-Rhinehart says. “There are many things I am hoping to explore further.”

Contributing writers to The ‘Grove section are Audrey Carroll ‘12 and Megan McDermott ‘14.

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