Dr. Colleen Novak, an associate professor of biology at Kent State University, is using a nearly half-a-million-dollar federal grant to study the potential of using a “fight or flight” response to stimuli to lose weight.
Novak discovered that in rats, a dose of a predator’s scent induces a response in the sympathetic nervous system — the so-called “fight or flight” response — that causes muscles to heat up. As a result of the muscles heating up, she explained, calories are burned, leading to weight loss and a potential application for treating obesity.
“There are other tissues that can do this, but we have a lot of muscle, so the potential to develop heat is really high,” she said.
But Can This Help Humans?
The question remains whether this discovery can somehow be adapted to help humans who need to lose weight for health reasons. “It’s hard to stick to a diet and exercise regime,” said Novak. “If you can give people one more thing to do, one more sandbag to throw on, it can help them.”
Novak said the $447,126 grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services will be used to further education and research. “Part of the [Academic Research Enhancement Awards] grant is to engage undergraduate students in research,” she said. “Luckily, we have a large number of highly engaged and talented students at Kent. We have been lucky to have excellent students in the laboratory now and in the past.” Currently, Novak said she’s awaiting the return of a paper on her work that’s being peer reviewed prior to publication.
There are two distinct focuses within her research. First, she said, she is studying different stimuli that can elicit the fight or flight response, and second, she is studying what is actually going on chemically between the brain and muscles to cause the muscles to heat up.
In the case of rats, she said she’s found a reliable stimulus. “They do not like ferret odor,” she said. “They’ll sniff it and kind of mosey over to the far corner of the cage.”
Along with this behavior, using transponders surgically implanted in muscle tissue and a wand-like thermometer, she’s able to measure the muscle temperature. “They burn 40% more calories in the first hour than they would if they were just being passive,” she said of the rats.
They do become slightly more active and fidgety than normal, so Novak said that has to be factored into her calculations, as well. She said she cuts up squares of towels that ferrets have slept with to expose rats to their odor. “The first time I ever measured their temperature was in 2014,” she said of the rats.
One of the big questions she said must be considered is how much stress is acceptable in a human application. In rats, the stress induced by the ferret odor does not seem to be long-lived.
“We actually measured the stress hormone,” she said. “It goes up, then it comes back down in a few hours … They definitely have a stress response to it. They’re not running scared but they do have a hormonal reaction.”
Finding a way to bypass the need for a stress stimuli would address one of the concerns about adapting the research for human use, she said. “Now, we actually focus on the mechanism, what’s going on in the brain and muscle to actually communicate the message to the sympathetic nervous system and then generate heat,” she said.
She said an application for humans could be “more multi-modal.” While rats have strong olfactory senses, humans have different senses that are particularly sharp, hearing and sight, for example. Calcium within muscle cells works as “a signal,” she added.
“Calcium gets pumped into different parts of the cell, and it takes energy to shuttle the calcium around,” said Novak, so figuring out a way to get calcium to do that without some sort of stress stimuli may be one route to explore.
During the research process, she said, teams of undergrads work with grad student leaders to complete various lab work, data collection, rat care and more. Sometimes, like last summer, there are “all hands on deck” periods, while other times she may work with individual students.
Dr. Colleen M. Novak, Associate Professor, Kent State University
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