WSU researchers shed new light on conditions that afflict hundreds of millions worldwide

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Everyone eats. We obsess over eating. We know we should have several servings of fruit and vegetables each day yet many of us struggle with avoiding temptations like chips, candy, and soda.

In the meantime, the obesity rate in the United States has more than doubled since 1962. Twenty-nine million Americans have diabetes. An estimated 20 million women and 10 million men in the U.S. suffer from an eating disorder at some point in their life.

Given our obsession with food, we know little about the science of what’s going on, neither why we eat — and it’s not just because we’re hungry — nor why we stop eating — and it’s not just because our stomach is full.

That’s where Washington State University neuroscientists Bob and Sue Ritter have carved out their research niche. Faculty members in the College of Veterinary Medicine and members of the Washington State Academy of Sciences, the Ritters have devoted their careers to studying the complex hormonal and neurological pathways of appetite and satiation. Supported by funding from the National Institutes of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases and the National Institute of Neurological Diseases and Stroke, they are probing the fundamental processes behind the brain and behavior that influence obesity.

Sue Ritter and her research team focus on appetite, examining how the brain keeps track of energy metabolism by monitoring the availability of glucose and fat. Her work on glucose sensing has uncovered brain circuits and reflex mechanisms that protect an animal against potentially fatal drops in blood glucose.

The research has important clinical implications because the physiological mechanisms she and her colleagues have defined frequently become insensitive in diabetic patients on insulin therapy and fail to elicit protective, life-sustaining responses to glucose deficit.

Sue Ritter, WSU
Sue Ritter, WSU

Her recent work on mechanisms of fat monitoring suggests that fatty acids influence appetite in part by acting on membrane receptors that control the release of appetite modulating hormones. The research may aid development of medications to counteract obesity.

“Your answer is never the final answer and the truth you find is only a temporary truth,” Sue Ritter says. “You always need and want to move beyond that to the next step. And the next step not only points you ahead but it reinterprets often what you have already found. It’s a very complex thing. You’re in the midst of an enveloping cloud of curiosity that looks ahead and looks back at the same time. You find this common path between what you found before and what you’re moving ahead to.”

In contrast to Sue’s focus, Bob Ritter’s efforts are concentrated on what enables us to stop eating. That is, how does the brain say we’ve had enough? Using cutting-edge techniques, he and his research team are identifying mechanisms that let hormones, taste and metabolic changes adjust the feelings of fullness carried by nerves from the digestive tract to the brain.

Bob Ritter (Washington State University)
Bob Ritter (Washington State University)

By understanding the chemistry of these nerves and the molecular mechanisms by which hormones and transmitters activate them, medical researchers may be able to develop more selectively targeted interventions to treat obesity and eating disorders.

“A lot of the hypotheses that you generate, you quickly disprove and have to discard,” Bob says. “In a way it’s a lot like turning over rocks. There’s nothing under many of them. But when you do find something, it can be very exciting.”

WSU’s College of Veterinary Medicine has long been a leader in translational and biomedical research, including collaborative and comparative research that has direct application to human health. From the Allen School for Global Animal Health, where the disease interface between humans and other animals is a focal point, to the college’s program in integrative physiology and neuroscience, where research to reverse the effects of Alzheimer’s is achieving breakthroughs, scientists are seeking answers that will improve the quality of life for millions.

Learn more about how Washington State University researchers untangle complex problems to enrich quality of life for us all.