The numbers are staggering: More than 30 percent of American adults—at least 60 million people—are obese, while more than 50 percent are overweight. And since people who are overweight and obese are at much greater risk of developing serious medical conditions–high blood pressure, heart attack, stroke, diabetes, and certain cancers—the implications for public health and economics cannot be ignored.

While conventional approaches to appetite control often focus on mental stamina, new research by scientists at Washington State University reveals a complex communication system between the brain and gastrointestinal tract that may help our bodies better control our minds with regard to healthy eating and eating disorders.

Dr. Bob Ritter, professor of physiology and neuroscience in the Department of Veterinary and Comparative Anatomy, Pharmacology and Physiology at WSU, is investigating ways in which the gastrointestinal tract communicates with the brain to produce satiety or the feeling of having eaten enough. Food entering the intestine from the stomach triggers secretion of hormones from the intestinal lining into the blood. Dr. Ritter and his colleagues have found that some of these intestinal hormones excite specific groups of sensory nerves that directly connect the gastrointestinal tract with the brain.

The scientists also found that these sensory nerves release special neurotransmitter chemicals that inform the brain about how much has been eaten, initiating the process of satiation. Equipped with these new clues, the scientists are exploring the neural and hormonal basis of satiety in hopes of developing treatments to help people reduce their food intake and return to healthy body weights.

“Understanding the mechanisms that control food intake could also lead to more effective treatments for appetite loss that occurs during infection, anorexia, and cancer therapies,” Dr. Ritter says.

The critical problems associated with overeating and obesity are rapidly gaining attention among biomedical researchers as well as the pharmaceutical and nutriceutical industries. Through their pioneering studies of the mechanisms that control appetite, WSU scientists are unlocking the secrets to a healthier society.

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Featuring: Robert Ritter, Ph.D., V.M.D.

Professor of physiology and neuroscience, in the Department of Veterinary and Comparative Anatomy, Pharmacology and Physiology at Washington State University, Dr. Robert “Bob” Ritter earned doctorates in veterinary medicine and neuroscience from the University of Pennsylvania. He came to WSU as the first faculty member hired for the Washington/Oregon/Idaho Program in Veterinary Medical Education. While his principal research focus has been on the control of food intake and body weight, he has contributed to research in other areas, including environmental factors that cause death among cattle. Dr. Ritter has been visiting professor of gastroenterology at London Hospital School of Medicine and visiting professor of cellular neuroscience at Flinders University College of Medicine in Australia. He has twice received Fogarty Senior International Research Fellowships, and from 1991 to 1998 he was a NIH Jacob Javits Neuroscience Investigator. His research on the control of food intake and body weight is funded by the National Institute of Neurological Diseases and Stroke and by the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. He is author of more than 100 full-length peer reviewed publications and he has written numerous articles and book chapters on food intake and innervation of the gastrointestinal tract.