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Undergraduate Researchers

Kathryn Henry

Kathryn Henry,

Political Science and Public Administration,

"Considering Intestinal Permeability in Eating Disorder Treatment"

Increased intestinal permeability (IP) has been linked to a number of psychiatric, developmental, and physiological diseases, but its role in the development or worsening of eating disorders has yet to be thoroughly investigated. Because high levels of chronic stress and erratic eating behaviors are risk factors for developing both IP and anorexia nervosa (AN), it is theoretically possible that patients with AN could suffering from IP. The existence of IP in patients with anorexia nervosa (AN) would have important implications for eating-disorder treatment, primarily because the nutritional approaches to treating the disorders are contradictory to one another. Since anorexia nervosa is a notoriously hard-to-treat disorder and only a small number of patients ever fully recover from it, IP would appear to be worth investigating as a possible factor in the treatment-resistant perpetuation of the disease. The likelihood that patients with AN could be suffering from increased intestinal permeability, the pathophysiology of each disorder, and the implications that these findings could have for eating disorder treatment are the things I'll be studying during my research endeavors this year.

How did you learn about the McNair Scholars Program at UMBC?

My Sondheim Public Affairs adviser Delana Gregg told me about the program and encouraged me to apply. Her support really made the difference and I am so thankful that she thought of me for this!

Did the McNair program help you find your research project for this summer?

The McNair program has provided everything I could possibly need for researching this summer. They helped me find a mentor, draft a proposal, design my project, and they've also provided me with a place to stay and conduct research. In addition, they've helped me out with the cost of food, so I'm free to spend time working on my project rather than trying to make money by working another job in addition to my research duties.

How are you conducting this research?

I'm doing a literature review and some analyses of my own. In addition, I hope to do some surveys and patient data analysis in the future.

What has been the most interesting or unexpected thing about your research?

Learning that peptides from wheat (gluten) and dairy (casein) can act almost exactly like opiates in the brain was very interesting. In addition, the finding out that anorexic patients experience less intestinal permeability and have better immune function than normal controls was really surprising.

What academic background did you have before you started this research?

I'm a Political Science and Public Administration major, so at first glance this research project would appear to be way outside of my field. As someone who's interested in public health, however, it was concerning to me that so little research has been done linking the incidence of eating disorders to food and lifestyle habits. Eating disorders, obesity, and chronic disease have all been on the rise since the early 1900s, and this trend matches very nicely with increases in food processing and sugar consumption in the U.S. diet. I've conducted original research before and have a pretty extensive background knowledge of my subject from previous research endeavors, so I felt confident that, with some advice from professionals, I could take this on.

What is your advice to other students about getting involved in research?

Talk to people and professionals who are studying what you are. I tend to get really into reading reports and my ability to produce written work often slows because of this. There is so much to learn that it's easy to get off track and never end up writing everything. Talking to people reminds you of your goals and gives you new ideas when you're stuck. Networking is never a bad thing, and I've found that professionals generally really like to help undergraduates who are passionate about what they're studying.

What are your careers goals and how does this research fit into your goals?

I'm actually planning to attend medical school after college and pursue a naturopathic degree. An N.D. is similar to an M.D.; both have the same basic sciences as the core of their educational curriculum, but I like that N.D. is more systems-based and holistic. Naturopathy is based on the idea that the body is capable of self-correcting disease (often without drugs) if given the right support. It's focused a lot on educating and empowering the patient and preventing diseases before they start. I think we will see a huge increase in popularity as the skepticism around the practice decreases and people being to understand the value of this approach. The accredited medical schools that offer this degree are pretty legitimate and I've actually found that N.D.s are now training M.D.'s regarding topics like endocrinology, adrenal function, herbal supplementation etc. My research on this topic takes a functionalist approach, which means it will fit right in with what I'll learn in medical school. I plan to continue this research well into my adult life. I think the issues I'm hitting on are really important and will need to be publicized in some way.