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Researcher Spotlight: Professor Lora Heisler

27 Apr, 2015

Heisler lab picProfessor Lora Heisler is a Wellcome Trust Senior Research Fellow based at the Rowett Institute of Nutrition and Health at the University of Aberdeen. Her research looks at the mechanisms underlying the development of obesity and diabetes in a effort to identify new therapeutic interventions. Here she talks about her desire to reverse the obesity epidemic through understanding the brain and meeting Ronnie Wood at the White House…

What are you working on?

I investigate the brain circuits that regulate appetite, body weight and glucose homeostasis.  One of the fascinating aspects of this work is that the brain is still predominantly unchartered territory.  Like early explorers, neuroanatomists have been mapping the brain, compiling their findings in an atlas, and discovering the function of discrete brain regions and the connectivity between them.  It is thrilling to contribute to this body of work – to be the first to discover a functionally defined brain circuit.

What does your average day involve?

Figure 2 -oxytocin hypothalamic expression

Oxytocin “the love hormone” is expressed in the shape of a heart in the hypothalamus

Research is exciting because every day is different.  Usually I start with a basic outline of what I would like to accomplish in a day, but how the day unfolds is often very different.  I typically have a mixture of academic work, university meetings and meetings with my team to plan projects and discuss new experimental data.  This last part is the most exciting. It’s fascinating to make new discoveries about how the brain works to influence how we behave, what and when we eat, especially if we don’t get the answers we expect. I love the way that research is full of surprises!

Why is your work important?

Obesity is arguably one of THE global health care challenges of the 21st century.  Overweight and obesity are incredibly prevalent, with more than half the nation meeting these criteria.  Unfortunately, just like too little body weight, too much is also detrimental to health.  It is not clear why this is case, but excess adiposity (body fat) in obesity is associated with serious illnesses, such as cancer and heart disease, which reduce lifespan and have a detrimental impact quality of life.

Excess body weight is a result of consuming more calories than the body requires.  This excess energy is stored, primarily as fat.  The brain, receiving signals from the gut and body, is the master coordinator of hunger and fullness.  What we are attempting to discern is how the brain integrates this information and how we can interrogate these circuits to prevent and treat obesity.

What do you hope the impact of your work will be?

My overall aspiration is to contribute to human health by identifying a means to reverse the obesity epidemic.

How did you come to be working on this topic/in this field?

Since I was a child, I have been curious about the brain and how it regulates behaviour.  While I was at university, my “after school job” was working as a Mental Health Worker on a locked inpatient psychiatric ward, primarily working with patients suffering from major depression and schizophrenia who were treatment resistant.  This work with patients gave me an enormous drive to understand how our brain chemistry and architecture underpins behaviour.  I was particularly interested in the neurotransmitter serotonin or 5-HT and my PhD research was focused on investigating whether the depression and anxiety medication Prozac could be repurposed for obesity treatment.

How has Wellcome funding helped you/your research/your career?

The Wellcome Trust Senior Fellowship has been crucial to my research and career.  I feel very fortunate to have been funded by the Trust for the past 7 years.  Wellcome have provided me with the means to pursue my passion, to recruit a team of outstanding scientists, to capitalise on the latest technology and to break new ground in obesity and type 2 diabetes research.  With my team of excellent post doctoral fellows, we have begun to decipher the neural underpinnings of 5-HT obesity medications and have identified new players in appetitive and gluco-regulatory circuits.

What’s the most frequently asked question about your work?

Why are so many people obese and why is obesity so resistant to drug treatment?

Which question about your work do you most dread – and why?

I am very curious about the questions people have. What is the primary riddle in their minds related to my work and/or my field?  This interest holds true for my scientific colleagues and the general public alike.  I find the questions both fascinating and illuminating.

Tell us something about you that might surprise us…

Image courtesy of Ray Krebs on Flickr - CC-NC-ND

Image courtesy of Ray Krebs on Flickr – CC-NC-ND

As an undergraduate, I was selected for a competitive internship in Washington D.C. to learn about the inner workings of the government.  I was there for the inauguration of President Bush and attended both the inauguration ceremony (swearing-in in front of the Capital building) and an inaugural ball.  A highlight for me at the ball was seeing the President in person and rubbing shoulders with politicians, celebrities and musicians, including Ronnie Wood of the Rolling Stones. It was a very exciting day.

What keeps you awake at night?

Occasionally, it is difficult to hit the “pause” button on the brain, and on these occasions, I lay awake puzzling over data, circuitry and new approaches.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

My undergraduate supervisor Dr. Michael Lyons told me that we spend so much of our lives working, it is a gift to do what you love.  He advised me to always actively pursue what I am passionate about.

The chain-reaction question, posted by previous spotlightee Dr Thomas Ezard is this: What’s the most important tool for successful interdisciplinary research?

Communication.

To find out more about Lora Heisler and her research you can follow her on Twitter or and visit her profile on the University of Aberdeen website

Image credits: Provided by author; Provided by author; Capital Building image by Ray Krebs on Flickr, CC-NC-ND.

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