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Posted 11/30/2020

Pursuing Answers for the Endemic of Depression, Suicide and Obesity

“Depression, substance use disorders and obesity are complex diseases with a multitude of causes, but all three are grounded in the interface between brain and behavior,” explained Kyle Simmons, Ph.D., director of biomedical imaging at the National Center for Wellness & Recovery. “We are very focused right now on the fight against SARS-CoV-2, and rightly so. In contrast, there are other diseases that are endemic to our society with which we have been struggling for decades.”

Simmons has made it his lifelong passion to pursue answers to three chronic diseases that have caused countless preventable deaths and contributed to debilitating health conditions for decades.

In 2018, there were nearly 50,000 Americans who died by suicide and over 60,000 drug overdose deaths. Obesity contributes to approximately 300,000 deaths each year in the U.S. and is associated with severe chronic diseases including high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and cancer. “Depression, drug abuse and obesity are the three great public health crises of our time,” shared Simmons.

As a child, Simmons often helped with the family-owned business that made and distributed materials for Alcoholics Anonymous. Through these experiences, he was exposed to the struggles many people faced with addictive behaviors. “I have always been interested in the biological bases of behavior and in particular, why we engage in behaviors that run counter to our long-term interest,” shares Simmons.

Early in his career, Simmons began studying the neural bases of obesity, and subsequently how reward circuitry and signaling pathways from the peripheral body to the brain influence our mood and decisions. Simmons credits several mentors throughout his journey who inspired him and laid the foundation for his career in addiction research.

“I have always tried to be problem-oriented, rather than tool-oriented,” said Simmons. “I try to follow the science where it leads me, and along the way pick up the necessary tools to answer the questions that get me excited.” Simmons’ research uses a combination of functional neuroimaging, psychophysiology, blood-based biomarkers of metabolic or immune signaling, as well as clinical and behavioral assessments.

At NCWR, Simmons’ mission is to explore brain-body signaling systems to develop better treatments for those who are experiencing addictive behavior disorders.

“My background in clinical neuroscience provides a more nuanced understanding of the opioid crisis at hand in this country,” said Simmons. “When you start from the brain, you realize that the drugs that are driving the opioid crisis have been engineered to hijack ancient systems in our bodies and brains, with very real consequences for individuals, and in the aggregate, society as a whole.”

On the forefront of technology, Simmons is hopeful that wearables and mobile monitoring devices may provide support to people who are recovering from addictive disorders.

“If we can combine wearable data with momentary assessments and limited biomarker collection from outside the lab, we may be able to build much more robust statistical models for predicting relapse, which in turn can be used to get patients the support they need before it is too late,” he said.

Deanne Vick | November 2021