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Does stress make sweet and fat food irresistible to the brain?

Killam postdoc Georgia Balsevich studies how stress hormones may chemically amp up rewards of eating.

University of Calgary postdoc researcher Georgia Balsevich has long been interested in the effects of stress. “I’m specifically interested in understanding the different signalling mechanisms of stress hormones, or glucocorticoids,” she says.

Photo by Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

The Killam Trusts support top-ranked Canadian post-secondary students and professors who are making exceptional contributions to society. The pathfinding work of the nearly 7,000 Killam Laureates from Canada and around the world promote international understanding — fulfilling the Killam dream of a better world.

From scientific experiments and personal experience, it’s well understood that stress can drive people to overeat. What’s not known, however, is exactly how that happens and whether there are neurochemical processes at play that could, if interrupted, have implications for obesity prevention and treatment.

In her search for answers, Killam Postdoctoral Laureate Georgia Balsevich is bridging research in two separate fields of study: stress and metabolism.

“Throughout my studies, I’ve been interested in the effects of stress,” says Balsevich, who arrived in September after earning her PhD in April from the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry in Germany. Balsevich selected the University of Calgary for her postdoc placement following a recruitment visit organized by the Hotchkiss Brain Institute (HBI), building on the HBI’s strategic partnership with the Munich Center for Neurosciences (MCN).

In Calgary, she will be researching whether an increase in stress hormones in animal models amps up the motivation to seek a food reward, perhaps by triggering a heightened response in the dopamine system which drives the brain’s pleasure centre.

My molecules made me do it

“I’m specifically interested in understanding the different signalling mechanisms of stress hormones, or glucocorticoids,” Balsevich says. “We want to know how they affect overeating, how they impact our perception of food, and whether they disrupt our regulatory and reward systems on a molecular level.”

Balsevich is pursuing her postdoctoral work under the supervision of Matt Hill, a Cumming School of Medicine researcher and professor, member of the HBI, and Tier II Canada Research Chair in Neurobiology. Hill’s work centres on stress and emotional behaviour, while Balsevich’s other supervisor, researcher and professor Stephanie Borgland, also a member of HBI, concentrates on research in appetite, obesity and addiction.

“Our research brings together the work in my lab, which is primarily a stress lab, with Stephanie’s research in metabolism and feeding,” Hill says. “We know that stress increases eating; we don’t really know a lot about the mechanism at work there.”

Balsevich has just been named a Killam Postdoctoral Laureate, a fellowship awarded annually following a thorough competition to just one exceptional University of Calgary researcher each year. Recipients are selected on the basis of their having already made significant contributions in the field of study, having an outstanding research program likely to lead to significant breakthroughs, and their collaboration with a supervisor recognized nationally as a leader in the discipline.

Eligible applicants must have completed their PhD within two years preceding the competition. Prior to her studies at the Max Planck Institute, Balsevich earned her BSc from the University of Saskatchewan and her MSc in neuroscience from UBC. In addition to the Killam, Balsevich will also receive research funding from the HBI-MCN Fellowship.

“Promising young scholars, like Georgia Balsevich, increase our research capacity and encourage us to explore exciting new areas of study,” says John Reynolds, acting vice-president (research). “We thank the Killam Trust for their support, which enables us to recruit the brightest trainees, who are poised to achieve research excellence.”

Postdocs’ expertise and ambition fuel innovation

“Postdocs are the lifeblood of the lab,” Hill says. “They understand the expectations in science, they tend to be brimming with ideas, and they are ambitious.” Hill seeks out researchers from an array of disciplines: “It broadens out the lab, giving us this wider circle of knowledge leading to more meaningful science.”

Part one of Balsevich’s work will look at stress hormones and overeating. She will then move on to study whether the loop of stress and overeating also involves the endocannabinoid system, the part of the brain that reacts to cannabinoids like marijuana and also creates its own cannabis-like chemicals. It’s Hill’s research specialty, and he says it’s a promising target for obesity research.

“Cannabinoids help us recover from stress, and there has been some success in targeting cannabinoids to suppress feeding,” Hill says. But any efforts to date have led to side-effects, like possible depression and anxiety.

“For now the goal is to better understand how the process is supposed to work; once we understand that relationship better maybe we can find more effective ways to treat it when things go wrong.”

 

The University of Calgary Postdoctoral Program attracts the best and brightest emerging scholars with world-class professional training that prepares them to pursue rewarding careers in industry, academia, government, and non-governmental organizations. Through the unique Eyes High Postdoctoral Scholars Competition, the university has invested in more than 185 postdocs, bringing the total number of postdoctoral scholars on campus to over 500, ranking the program among the top five in Canada. 

Led by the HBI, Brain and Mental Health is one of six strategic research themes guiding the University of Calgary towards its Eyes High goals.