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Sept. 9, 2015

Gina Leinninger : Genes that Control the Size of Our Jeans

Gina Leinninger is an assistant professor, Department of Physiology and Neuroscience Program; member of MSU’s Molecular Metabolism and Disease research program. Her research focuses on how neurons in the lateral hypothalamic area of the brain may contribute to obesity and a lack of a desire to move around. Her research was the first to describe neurons in this part of the brain that did something different.

Food in the United States is easy to get, calorically dense and tasty. I call it the “dessert phenomenon.”

You may be full and your body has all the energy that it needs, but that chocolate cake looks so delicious. So, we are taking in more calories than we need. I want to find ways to decrease the desire to eat and increase the desire to move around, especially in people who are clinically obese, one of the most serious health problems in the U.S., affecting one-third of the population.

The LHA is a crucial area of the brain for regulating feeding, drinking, sleep and locomotor behaviors that directly affect weight. We believe there are neurons in this particular part of the brain that are activated by stimuli that cause you to eat less but move more. If we activate those neurons, we can suppress the desire to eat but increase actions to move around. If we could perpetuate that, it would promote weight loss.

We have developed tools using Cre-lox techniques that allow manipulation of only certain populations of neurons at one time. In the past, the theory was that all neurons in the LHA promoted feeding. Now there may be different kinds of neurons in that part of the brain, which might be manipulated for specific effects.

My long-term goal is to understand how the neuronal circuit should work, then design strategies to increase the activation of specific neurons in that circuit. Some people think obesity is a willpower issue, but it isn't. The brain circuits have changed, and they actively prohibit weight loss.

Came to MSU: 2012

Hometown: Born in Frankenmuth (German town! Land of chicken, lederhosen and Christmas decorations).

Muses: There are many similarities between pursuing truth via science and via art, and both require dedication, passion and perseverance. For this reason I find inspiration from artists, particularly those who strive for the best, overcome difficult personal obstacles and don’t conform to the norms. Some examples:

  • Trent Reznor (musician) of Nine Inch Nails, who is an intelligent, honest, hard worker, always re-inventing himself.
  • Marc Maron, comedian and podcaster, who wrestles publicly with being a better, more thoughtful person every day.
  • David Fincher, Wes Anderson and Rian Johnson (directors) who have each soldiered their own unique paths in cinema, and whose work is truly unique.

Favorite food: It’s a tie between salt and vinegar potato chips and peanut M&Ms. My temptation to eat these drives me to work harder . . . to figure out how I can suppress my temptation to eat these!

Best song/group: Currently I’m really enjoying music by Against Me, who wrestle with complex personal and political issues through their driving, catchy, wonderful tunes.

Books I’d recommend:

  • For substance: “The Year of Magical Thinking” by Joan Didion. It made me think deeply about relationships, how we grieve, how we cope.
  • For fun: “The Rosie Project” by Graeme Simsion. Winningly written, laugh-out-loud funny, flawed but lovely characters that you root for. Oh yeah, and science, too. What’s not to like?

Coolest gadget: The robotic tea maker. It’s the one gadget I simply couldn’t resist buying. It’s well suited for lazy (busy?) people who like good tea but won’t go through the trouble of making it themselves.

Best invention: Smart phone. Seriously, it’s hard to imagine living without one now.

Worst invention: Smart phone. Dang it, I can never get away from it!

On my bucket list: I’d like to visit Japan during cherry blossom season.

Person I’d most like to meet (living or dead): Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters. He is so passionate about his work, upbeat, and recognizes the need for teamwork to make something great. Just reading interviews from him is inspirational, so I’d love to have a glass of wine with him and chat about what makes life meaningful and purposeful.

Best trip/vacation: I recently went on a theme-park vacation with my husband; the trip was full of roller coasters by day and ridiculously yummy food by night. Fun!

On a Saturday afternoon, you’ll likely find me: Honestly, probably working. But if I have some free time I like to be outside for a run or long bike ride.

Major research breakthrough of the next decade: I’d be rather partial to seeing the “Star Trek” teleportation technology work because it might save me a long commute. (And then I might finally have time to get to Japan and see those cherry blossoms!)

Reprinted with permission from the College of Natural Science's Classes Without Quizzes