BAR HARBOR, MAINE — University of Maine neuroscientist Kristy Townsend, Ph.D., will talk about factors contributing to the national epidemic of obesity and overweight and steps individuals can take to control their weight at an MDI Science Café presentation at the MDI Biological Laboratory.
The café, entitled “How Our Brains and Nervous Systems Affect Metabolic Health and Body Weight,” will be held Monday, June 10, at 5 p.m. at the Maine Center for Biomedical Innovation on the institution’s campus at 159 Old Bar Harbor Road, Salisbury Cove.
Townsend studies how the brain and the central and peripheral nervous systems coordinate energy balance, or the relationship between energy intake and expenditure, each of which is modulated by a multiplicity of factors. In addition to obesity, her research has potential applications in the treatment of aging, diabetes, metabolic syndrome and neurodegenerative disease.
In particular, she studies the role of brown fat in physiology and metabolism. Brown fat, also known as brown adipose tissue, or BAT, is a type of fat that burns energy, in contrast to the more familiar white fat, which stores energy. Medicine could potentially take advantage of nervous system signaling to develop obesity and diabetes therapies that stimulate brown fat to burn calories and control blood sugar, she said.
“Brown fat is a healthy type of fat that we hope to exploit in the form of innovative new therapies to control body weight and metabolism,” Townsend said. “Science is starting to better understand the physiology of obesity, and to recognize that it isn’t due only to behavior and motivation, as was previously thought, but is the product of a complex interaction between genes and environment.”
One intriguing aspect of Townsend’s research, especially for those who live in regions like Maine with cold climates, is how brown fat is activated by exposure to cold. Studies in hibernating animals have demonstrated that, in the presence of cold, the sympathetic nervous system sends a signal directing brown fat to turn up the metabolism in order to help the organism keep warm while it is hibernating.
She will also discuss factors that affect obesity such as aging, appetite, diet, exercise and genetic predisposition, and how they are influenced by signaling between the brain and nervous system and the tissues.
Another of her areas of interest is understanding and treating peripheral neuropathy, or nerve damage in the extremities, which can impair muscle movement and cause pain, numbness, tingling and temperature sensitivity in the arms and legs. The potentially disabling condition disproportionately affects aged populations.
Townsend is an associate professor of neurobiology in the School of Biology and Ecology and the Graduate School of Biomedical Science and Engineering (GSBSE). Before joining the faculty at the University of Maine, she held a junior faculty position at the Joslin Diabetes Center and at Harvard Medical School in Boston. She holds a bachelor’s degree from University of Maine and a doctorate from Boston University.
MDI Science Cafés are offered in fulfillment of the institution’s mission to promote scientific literacy and increase public engagement with science. The popular events offer a chance to hear directly from speakers about trends in science. Short presentations delivered in everyday language are followed by lively, informal discussion.
For more information, please visit mdibl.org/events or call 207-288-3147.