FSU neuroscientist collaborates on international obesity research

Alan Spector is a distinguished research professor in neuroscience.

The World Health Organization confirms that the worldwide obesity rate has tripled since 1975, with 39 percent of adults considered overweight and 13 percent considered obese as of 2016. Now, a Florida State University professor is teaming up with researchers from across the pond to answer some of the most pressing questions surrounding obesity and its available treatment options, including bariatric surgery. 

Alan Spector, a distinguished research professor with the FSU Program in Neuroscience and the Department of Psychology, is participating in a project made possible through the U.S.-Ireland R&D Partnership, an international research collaboration initiative between the United States, Ireland and Northern Ireland. The project comes with $1.68 million in funding from the National Institutes of Health.  

Spector studies the neural basis of gustation, sensory processes, regulation of ingestive behavior, and taste preferences and aversions. For this project, he is working closely with researchers from University College Dublin and Ulster University, Coleraine, to study in what ways gastric bypass, one of the most effective treatments for severe obesity, affects eating and drinking in patients before and after the surgery.   

“My collaborators, Dr. Carel le Roux at the University College Dublin and Drs. Barbara Livingstone and Ruth Price at Ulster University, are terrific,” Spector said. “Each of us brings complementary and unique expertise and resources to the project in an effort to understand if and how gastric bypass affects food selection and patterns of eating and drinking and whether such behavioral changes contribute to the long-term health benefits of the surgery.” 

The global obesity rate comes at a high cost to healthcare, with the WHO designating raised body mass index as a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease, diabetes, musculoskeletal disorders and some cancers. The team’s work contributes to an ongoing global scientific effort to understand the beneficial effects of gastric bypass in the hopes that effective non-surgical interventions to combat obesity can eventually be developed, Spector said.  

The team is using its research to identify the characteristics of patients who are more likely to benefit from bariatric surgery, as well as those who are expected to need more support on their weight-loss journey. 

le Roux, the principal investigator for the project’s Ireland component, said Florida State boasts some of the best animal-model researchers studying food intake after bariatric surgery, making the university an obvious choice for the collaboration.  

“For us, as researchers at University College Dublin, we wanted specifically to partner with Florida State University and Ulster University because they were the leaders within this field,” le Roux said. 

Spector said the collaboration has afforded him the opportunity to apply some of the principles utilized in animal-model research to human science, a scientific endeavor he has always been interested in pursuing. 

“My collaboration with these leading experts in their fields has been exceptionally rewarding both scientifically and culturally,” Spector said. 

Launched in 2006, the US-Ireland R&D Partnership is a tri-jurisdictional alliance formed to promote collaborative innovative research projects that create value above and beyond individual efforts.  

The partnership is supported by the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs; the Department for the Economy; the Medical Research Council; InterTradeIreland; the HSC Public Health Agency; the Science Foundation Ireland; the Health Research Board; the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine; the Department of State; the National Science Foundation; the U.S. Department of Agriculture; and the U.S. National Institutes of Health. As of June 2021, the U.S.-Ireland R&D Partnership has funded 67 projects and raised over $130.7 million.