Overuse of electronic devices, stress, and a lack of sleep can take a toll on our health and well-being. Ilia Karatsoreos, associate professor of behavioral neuroscience, studies how the body's biological clock and stress response systems help maintain mental and physical health. His lab aims to uncover the fundamental mechanisms of, and potential interventions to, some of the negative health outcomes associated with our fast-paced modern society.
UMass PBS: What are the current goals of your research?
Karatsoreos: The brain and body act in concert to promote stability within an individual. When this balance becomes disturbed, we start to see negative effects on our health. For instance, we know that when we don’t sleep well or are jet lagged, we tend to have problems concentrating or have changes in our mood. Conversely, when we are stressed out, we might have trouble sleeping, eat food that tastes great but is bad for us, or get sick much more easily (picture how many students feel around exam time).
Our lab is focused on understanding how our biological clock, sleep, stress, metabolism, and immune function are linked, the processes by which they become disrupted, and the consequences to mental and physical health when they become disturbed.
UMass PBS: Describe a recent research project you have been working on?
Karatsoreos: We are focused on understanding what happens to the brain and body when our circadian (daily) clock becomes disturbed by altered environmental light-dark cycles—analogous to what happens when you live in a 24-hour “always on the go society”, as most of us do. Our recent findings show that both the brain and body respond to bacterial components very differently when our body clocks are disrupted, and this is accompanied by changes in the amount of sickness behaviors that are expressed. Another one of our studies explores what happens to our metabolism when we have a disrupted clock—and how this affects things like feeding behaviors, weight gain, and changes in metabolic hormones in the blood. We are also really interested in what happens when the systems that help our bodies respond to stress become disrupted, and how this might lead to disorders from anxiety to PTSD.
UMass PBS: How have technologies you use to monitor the brain become more advanced in the last 5-10 years?
Karatsoreos: The advance of ways to measure changes in brain activity and brain metabolism has moved incredibly quickly over just the past few years. We can now simultaneously measure changes in electrical activity and the way our neurons use energy in real time!
UMass PBS: Does your work have potential to bring about broader impacts on human health?
Karatsoreos: I like to think it has the potential for profound impacts on human health. It is becoming increasingly clear that our biological clocks drive nearly every process in our bodies. We are only now understanding what happens when those processes become dysregulated. The reality is that so much of our modern lifestyle (e.g. electric lighting, smartphones, shift work, jet lag, etc.) can directly affect our clocks, which can then lead to all the processes which the clock controls to become disorganized. When these processes become disorganized we think it makes us more susceptible to psychological stress, metabolic challenges, and infectious disease. If we can understand the way these processes are linked and become dysregulated, we might be able to find mechanisms that we can target with new drugs, or even better, changes to some of our lifestyle choices and habits.
UMass PBS: What drives you to keep pushing forward in your field?
Karatsoreos: Finding things that nobody else has ever seen. I think of my team as a group of explorers, and we are probing the limits of what we know. What keeps me excited and drives me to move forward is the knowledge that whenever we find something new, we are the only ones that have ever seen this particular thing happen (or at least seen it and wrote it down!). I love that feeling of helping to make this happen, and sharing it with students and trainees that work in the lab. It’s their discovery—I’m just along for the ride!
UMass PBS: What excites you most about your next couple of years at UMass Amherst?
Karatsoreos: I am really excited about the growth of the Initiative on Neurosciences (IONs) and the community of researchers from Psychological and Brain Sciences, to Biology, to Engineering (and many more) that are part of this push forward to understand the fundamental functions of the nervous system. Being part of the established and re-energized Center for Neuroendocrine Studies, and being surrounded by wonderful colleagues who study biological rhythms here at UMass Amherst, and at Amherst and Smith Colleges really excites me. Finally, I’m looking forward to meeting and working with the many undergraduate and graduate students on campus, through teaching and offering research opportunities in the lab.