Americans in the 21st century have a big challenge when it comes to the inner workings of the human body. They long for homeostasis – the balance that keeps them at their best – but they also desire things that light up the pleasure center in the brain.
That includes food and drink, which, when taken in too much abundance can lead to poor health.
“We have this biology that’s there to make sure we get the food we need and we’re in an incredibly food-rich environment,” said Derek Daniels, who in July became president-elect of the Society for the Study of Ingestive Behavior. “We’re bombarded with cues related to food intake all the time. We have social events around food and drink.”
Daniels, a University at Buffalo psychology professor, is among more than 350 scientists who are part of the international society. They study how eating and drinking impact the body – including those pleasure centers in the brain. Most work in universities, though some are employed at private research companies and in the food and beverage industry.
The 46-year-old Daniels, who grew up in the Elmwood Village, also is among a large subset of society scientists who seek creative ways to help those who are overweight or obese find a way back to balance, lowering their risk for high blood pressure, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and other chronic illnesses.
Daniels, also director of the behavioral neuroscience doctoral program, holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Canisius College, and master’s and doctorate degrees in the same subject from the University of Pennsylvania. He did a post-doctoral fellowship in animal biology at the Penn veterinary school before took his job at UB in January 2005. He and his wife, Jennifer, an attorney, live in Amherst with their children, Aidan, 16, Josh, 14, and Mallory, 10.
One of his professional goals is to help create a UB Center for Ingestive Behavior Research.
Q: What would the center do?
We clearly have a problem in this country with diseases and conditions ... either caused by, or related to, eating and drinking, or that can be treated in a large part by changing the way we eat and drink.
Q: What is the focus of ingestive behavior research?
It's anything related to eating and drinking. We have people that study individual molecules and how they drive thirst or hunger. We have people who study community policy decisions and how that affects intake.
It spans the entire range, and at UB we have people at all levels. We have people that study individual molecules. We have people who study taste, and how that affects eating and drinking. We have people who study human decision-making, how people decide what to eat. We have people that study the impact of diet during pregnancy and the impact that has on babies. We have someone who has created a great project, a veggie van that helps bring vegetables to areas that wouldn't otherwise have fresh food in their stores.
Q: What is your research focus?
I’m interested in the hormones that drive thirst, how they work on cells and what happens inside those cells. I’m interested in how learning can affect feeding and drinking – but primarily drinking. That balance of how much water we have in our body is important. Too much is bad. Too little is bad.
Q: In his book “Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us,” former New York Times Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Moss writes about how the food industry hired chemists to create foods with certain blends of salt, sugar and fat that turn on pleasure centers in the brain to keep people eating and drinking.
Their job is to make stuff that tastes good and that we will eat. Most humans – especially Americans – don’t like the taste of fat by itself. But add some sugar to it and we love it. Add some salt to it and we love it. More recently, we’ve seen the combination: salted caramels, which have a nice blend of salt and fat and sweet.
Q: Has the way these combinations can keep us eating been understood for decades?
I think we understand at a different level exactly how these things tap into those reward systems. In the past 10, 15 years, the knowledge ... has changed the landscape.
Q: Is there a push and pull, even within the society itself, because you're bringing in scientists with different interests? Some people are probably interested in how we prevent obesity, and the drain that puts on the economy, while other folks might have no problem with that because they're making money?
I don't think anybody thinks there's not a problem, at least in the society. I don't think we have anybody there who would deny there is a problem with obesity. There are people like me who consider themselves basic researchers who are trying to solve a puzzle; not necessarily fix a problem, but solve a puzzle. I want to figure out how the brain works. I want to figure out why sometimes we feel thirsty and other times we don't, and why that water is so great when we're thirsty and not so great when we're not. I want to figure that out.
Same with food. I want to understand why, when we're hungry, that food tastes so good and, when we're not, it's not all that great. When I teach, I always talk about Thanksgiving dinner, which is a big deal in my house. My wife is an excellent cook, we have this great dinner and the house smells so good. We sit down and the food looks fantastic and smells fantastic, and tastes fantastic. After eating very quickly, five, 10 minutes into the meal, the same food doesn't look good, doesn't taste good, doesn't smell good. The food hasn't changed but, because I'm not hungry anymore, that sensory experience is totally different. I just want to figure that out. I want to understand how that happens in our brain.
But there are certainly people in the society who see their job and their mission as fighting the obesity problem. My view is that if there's anything I can do that would help that, it would be great, but that's not what drives my research.
Q: What are the key things ingestive behavior researchers have learned during the last generation?
Since the mid to late ’90s, there’s been an explosion in the number of substances we now know are involved in controlling intake. There was a key discovery at the end of the ’90s of a hormone called leptin that’s made by fat cells and works in the brain to suppress food intake. That sparked an awful lot of research. It gave us a target in the brain to look for and it led to us learning about circuits in the brain that are involved in feedback from the body into the brain and how that controls food intake. It wasn’t just leptin. It was a huge peptide boom.
Q: How has your work figured into those findings?
One of the things I’m known for is that early in my career, I teased apart some of these intracellular signaling pathways. We’ve also done a lot of work on a hormone called GLP-1 (glucagon-like peptide 1), which is primarily known for its role in diabetes. Naturally, GLP-1, outside of the brain, causes the release of insulin. Drugs like Victoza, Byetta and Trulicity are drugs that mimic GLP-1. In the brain, it seems to act as a neurotransmitter and is involved in decreasing water and food intake.
Q: What would be some of the practical applications?
There are FDA-approved drugs that mimic GLP-1 for the treatment of obesity, for the treatment of Type 2 diabetes. There are people who are thinking about ways we can use these drugs to reduce cravings or reduce drug taking. What we were involved in discovering is that it also decreases thirst responses so, from a practical standpoint, [people taking these drugs] may want to pay attention to how much they’re drinking.
Q: What are some of the key things you and others in the society still want to know?
There are lots of details that are still left to be worked out. We're still discovering new things, new brain areas and connections. We used to see it as a simple, kind of center model, where there was this center for feeding and this center for fullness or satiety. We now know that it's a really complicated, distributed circuit, and that even in one area we can have cells involved in turning on intake and cells involved in turning off intake, cells that are involved in some circumstances in doing that, and cells that are involved in other circumstances. It's a complicated circuit and we don't have it worked out yet.
Q: Is it enough for someone to have an awareness of that pleasure center connection? If not, what else is needed? When you’re told you have diabetes, you would think that would be enough for most people to change their ways.
It’s not. Millions of years of evolution have made it hard. We need to eat. We need to drink. We would not have survived – our ancestors would not have lived – if they weren’t strongly driven to eat. A person or an animal who doesn’t have a drive to eat, who won’t work to get food, dies, starves, so of course we have these systems. We wouldn’t have lived long enough to pass it down to our offspring. That’s how evolution works.
Q: What is someone overweight or obese to do?
A: I’m not an expert in this but maybe they have to recognize it is a huge challenge and shift the reward value. Some people really like facing a challenge. People who are successful are the ones who get that rewarding feeling, probably tapping into the same areas of the brain, from accomplishing something. They accomplished the weight loss and that feels good.
Q: Does that help explain fitness trackers?
I think it does. It adds reinforcement to that healthy behavior. Whether or not it’s successful in the long-term? I think the jury is still out.
Twitter: @BNrefresh, @ScottBScanlon