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Faculty & Staff Honors

UNC: Professor Believes Gut Microbiota May Provide Clues to the Development of Anorexia Nervosa

Dr. Ian Carroll, assistant professor in the Department of Nutrition at the University of North Carolina Gillings School of Global Public Health, is entering the final year of a $2.3 million grant from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) to study how the intestinal microbiota impacts anxiety and weight regulation, two factors that influence the development of the eating disorder anorexia nervosa.

The intestinal microbiota is the largest microbial community in the human body, comprising bacteria, fungi, archaea and viruses. Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder characterized by extreme weight-loss behaviors, severely low body weight and intense fear of weight gain.

With the knowledge that the complex microbial community in the intestine can be both beneficial and detrimental to human health in a number of ways, Dr. Carroll and his team are exploring how intestinal microbes impact weight regulation and high levels of anxiety.

“We believe that a person’s intestinal microbiota doesn’t cause this disease, but if you don’t nourish yourself, you aren’t nourishing your microbes,” said Dr. Carroll. “When the composition of your intestinal microbiota changes, it can influence behavior and how you gain weight—which is obviously relevant in the context of clinically re-nourishing patients with anorexia nervosa.”

One of the study’s methods includes introducing human fecal microbes to germ-free mice. Once the mice have been colonized with human microbes, Dr. Carroll’s team then observes how a person’s microbiome influences behaviors and fat accumulation in the mice.

Dr. Carroll’s group, in collaboration with Dr. Cynthia Bulik, Gillings School professor of nutrition, will next conduct an early Phase I clinical trial to study fecal microbiota transplantation in people.

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