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Understanding how eating behaviours mediate genetic susceptibility to obesity

University of Exeter - Department of Psychology, College of Life and Environmental Sciences

Qualification Type: PhD
Location: Exeter
Funding for: UK Students, EU Students
Funding amount: £14,777 Doctoral Stipend for 3.5 years as well as full UK/EU tuition fees
Hours: Full Time
Placed On: 1st October 2018
Closes: 23rd November 2018
Reference: 3239

Lead Supervisor: 

Professor Natalia Lawrence, Department of Psychology, University of Exeter

Additional Supervisors:

Dr Elanor Hinton, University of Bristol 
Professor Timothy Frayling, University of Exeter Medical School
Dr Zoi Toumpakari, University of Bristol

Project Details

Tackling the obesity epidemic is one of our most urgent global health challenges. In the UK 64% of adults are overweight or obese, with overeating a key factor. BMI is highly heritable and has been associated with over 600 genes. This project examines the link between genetic risk scores for BMI (BMI-GRS) and (over)eating behaviours to inform the development of more targeted and effective prevention and treatment. The mechanisms mediating BMI-GRS involve brain mechanisms and changes in specific eating behaviours, namely increased hunger and disinhibition (a lack of control over eating) in children and adults. These behaviours are also associated with BMI and poor weight loss in cross-sectional and longitudinal studies.

This project aims to discover how eating behaviours mediate genetic susceptibility to obesity by i) conducting advanced statistical analyses of existing cohort data and ii) examining intermediate phenotypes in selected individuals using neuroimaging and behavioural measures that have been consistently associated with BMI.

Two sub-projects will provide the successful student with cross-disciplinary training in complementary and highly sought-after quantitative skills:  

  1. Statistical analysis of genetic cohort data (0-20 months): Secondary analyses of data from 2 local cohorts for whom we have eating behaviour scores and BMI-GRS. Our BMI-GRS is unique and the most sensitive to date, based on the weighted sum of 620 loci recently discovered by co-supervisor Frayling. We have data in 2713 middle-aged adults (M=59.3 years) in Extend (Exeter) and in ~4400 young adults (aged 26-27) in ALSPAC (Bristol). Early findings replicate the associations between BMI-GRS and eating behaviours. The student will conduct secondary analyses to examine associations with eating behaviours and other key variables in these rich datasets (e.g. diet, food preference and childhood eating behaviours).  
  2. Examination of intermediate neural and behavioural phenotypes mediating genetic susceptibility to obesity (20-42 months): A recall-by-genotype design will examine the impact of BMI-GRS and eating behaviours on validated behavioural and neuroimaging responses to food cues and satiety. Phenotypes include food cue-reactivity in fMRI (striatal and insula regions-of-interest) and food liking/intake and responses to satiety in taste tests and validated computer tasks. We will compare recalled adults with high vs. low BMI-GRS (N=50 per group) matched for sex, age and BMI. Regressions will determine how BMI-GRS affects neural and behavioural responses to food/satiety as a main effect and in interaction with eating behaviour scores.

This PhD builds on Exeter and Bristol’s strengths in the genetics and psychology of obesity and capitalises on our unique ability to recall adults from local genetic cohorts for more detailed examination of phenotypes related to eating behaviour/responses to food. From 2019, Exeter will have the same 3T MRI scanner as Bristol, facilitating multi-site neuroimaging.

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