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Dissertation Defense: Gut-brain Interactions in Food Reward

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Amber Burns

Dissertation Defense: Gut-brain Interactions in Food Reward

Amber Burns

Graduate Student, Translational Biology, Medicine, and Health
Graduate Research Assistant, DiFeliceantonio Lab, Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC
Dec. 5, 2023 at 2:30 p.m.

About this Dissertation

Food choice and preference have been linked to post-ingestive consequences of food consumption. Many ultra-processed foods deliver calories rapidly and are highly rewarding. In literature surrounding substances of abuse, the speed at which a drug reaches the brain affects its abuse potential; this is known as the “rate hypothesis.” Here, Burns and the DiFeliceantonio Lab test whether the rate hypothesis of addiction may apply to food, specifically whether caloric availability, or the speed at which carbohydrate becomes available for use, contributes to food reward and preference. To do this, the team uses beverages with novel flavors mixed with either a slow metabolizing carbohydrate (maltodextrin and inulin; CS+Slow), a fast-metabolizing carbohydrate (sucrose; CS+Fast), or no carbohydrate (sucralose; CS-). Participants are given each of these drinks 6 times to consume (conditioning period). 2 of these consumption periods occur during in-lab sessions. In one session, blood glucose is measured over one hour post-consumption. In another, researchers perform indirect calorimetry to assess post-consumption changes in substrate oxidation rates. At the post-testing session, changes in self-reported liking, wanting, and ad libitum intake of each beverage are recorded. Brain response to each flavor cue (without calories) is measured using fMRI at the post-test. Burns and the lab team hypothesize the flavor paired with the CS+Fast will be the most liked, wanted, and consumed. The researchers expect greater BOLD activation to the CS+Fast relative to the CS+Slow and CS- in the nucleus accumbens and hypothalamus. This is an ongoing study and, here, Burns presents preliminary analysis of the data.

More About the Candidate and Project


Virginia Tech, Translational Biology, Medicine, and Health, Ph.D. Candidate

Tennessee Tech University, B.S., Psychology


Graduate Research Assistant, DiFeliceantonio Lab, Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC


Alexandra DiFeliceantonio, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC

Committee Members

  • Brenda Davy, Ph.D., RDN, Professor, Department of Human Nutrition, Foods, and Exercise, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Virginia Tech
  • Pearl Chiu, Ph.D., Professor, Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC
  • Benjamin Katz, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Department of Human Development and Family Science, College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, Virginia Tech
  • Alexandra Hanlon, Ph.D., Professor of Practice, Driector of the Center for Biostatistics and Health Data Science, Department of Statistics, College of Science, Virginia Tech

Quddos F, Hubshman Z, Tegge A, Sane D, Marti E, Kablinger AS, Gatchalian KM, Kelly AL, DiFeliceantonio AG, Bickel WK. Semaglutide and Tirzepatide reduce alcohol consumption in individuals with obesity. Sci Rep. 2023 Nov 28;13(1):20998. doi: 10.1038/s41598-023-48267-2. PMID: 38017205.

Kelly, A. L., Baugh, M. E., Oster, M. E., & DiFeliceantonio, A. G. (2022). The impact of caloric availability on eating behavior and ultra-processed food reward. Appetite, 178, 106274.