By Susan Hickman
Zachary Patterson was 21 years old when he watched a good friend, who had been an energetic and athletic young man, lie in his hospital bed and become morbidly obese, the result of a fatal brain tumour.
At the time, Patterson, now 26, didn’t know what was happening to his friend, but the experience drew him into the field of neuroscience.
He started his studies at Carleton in forensic science, graduating with a degree in this field in 2008. But his fourth-year honours project took him to the small laboratory of psychology and neuroscience professor Alfonso Abizaid, where he began to study the stress-obesity link.
Abizaid, who has been fascinated with the “hunger” hormone ghrelin for about eight years, is Patterson’s advisor. He explains that Patterson’s “amazing academic performance” and “excellent research work” during his master’s work fast-tracked him into his current doctoral project relating to the hormonal factors that mediate obesity.
Meanwhile, Patterson, now in his second year of PhD studies, became hooked on neuroscience research.
“It’s a passion now,” he says. “It’s the novelty, answering unanswered questions.”
His honours project took him to the lab where he began to study the stress-obesity link
What Patterson has been able to answer so far is that animals that are stressed undergo metabolic changes that cause them to gain “fat” weight and show a profile similar to an obese human.
“However,” says Patterson, “it’s not quite that simple. It’s possible that ghrelin has anti-depressant properties. Take away the ghrelin, and they stay thin, but become depressed or anxious.”
Patterson’s ultimate goal is “to paint a descriptive picture showing how ghrelin contributes to the development of stress-induced obesity, which is massive in today’s high-stressed society.”
Once scientists understand the neural basis of obesity, says Patterson, doctors can stop telling people to eat less and exercise more, and instead they can address the neural imbalance through pharmacological treatment.