In a recent meeting of the Society for the Study of Ingestive Behavior in Portland, Oregon, Virginia Tech Translational Biology, Medicine and Health graduate student Emma Leslie shared her plans for research on how ultra-processed food influences brain-reward response and energy intake in volunteer participants from age 18 to 25.

Why that demographic? 

“During this stage of life, young adults are beginning to make independent food choices, and it is a critical development period for executive function and impulse, factors which impact lifelong physical and mental health,” Leslie said. She also notes that young adults have the poorest quality diet in the United States, with ultra-processed foods representing 68 percent of what they eat.

Participants will consume two different highly controlled diets for two weeks, with a break in between, emphasizing either highly processed foods or no highly processed foods. The macro- and micronutrients will be identical, and the calories will be the same, matched to the participants’ needs. 

Leslie will measure brain activity using functional MRIs before and after each two-week period, with a pump that precisely delivers highly processed milkshakes or tasteless solutions through a straw-like device to participants in order to see how brain activity changes between the two diets.

Leslie is the recipient of the Dr. Ray A. Gaskins Exercise Health Sciences Graduate Fellowship, which has already supported the purchase of a backup pump. 

“The pumps are a little finicky sometimes,” Leslie said. In the past, when the pump malfunctioned, the session was over and the data were lost. “Having a backup pump means that if anything goes wrong, I won’t lose any data. I just replace the pump. It’s been really good to have that.” 

After transferring dual-enrollment credits earned during through her local community college while she was a high-school student, Leslie completed her bachelor’s degree from Kennesaw State University in Georgia in less than two years. She graduated in December 2019 and joined Virginia Tech at the start of the pandemic.

She began her research with a focus on infectious diseases, including herpes viruses and coronavirus in animal models. Leslie switched gears, however, and joined the lab of Alexandra DiFeliceantonio, an assistant professor at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC and associate director of the research institute’s Center for Health Behaviors Research.

There, the focus is on the intersection of neuroscience and human nutrition.

The Gaskins fellowship will also support a return trip to the 2024 meeting of the Society for the Study of Ingestive Behavior in Chicago.

“All the attendees are researchers who look at the impact of food or drinks at the molecular or behavioral level.” By the end of 2023 Leslie expects to have moved half of her research participants through the study. “Next year when I go to the conference, I will have a lot of exciting results to share.”

She also hopes the grant may cover additional training to help her with the nuances of neuroimaging analysis. “There’s a lot to it, there are many analyses the neuroimaging software can do that I don’t know about yet.”

Gaskins supports two annual $5,000 fellowships for students on Virginia Tech’s Health Sciences and Technology campus in Roanoke who are conducting doctoral research mentored by the institute’s primary faculty. He is a Virginia Tech alumnus and health and fitness enthusiast who retired from the faculty of Hampden-Sydney College.

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