Columbia University Initiative to Study Links Between Brain, Metabolic Disorders

New payment models in Medicare and beyond recognize the connection between mental health and conditions like diabetes and obesity.

Researchers have long documented the fact that patients with diabetes and obesity have higher rates of depression and other mental health disorders. Now, a new research program at Columbia University will seek a richer understanding of how the brain affects metabolic disorders.

The Naomi Berrie Diabetes Center, part of the Columbia University Medical Center, has received $8.2 million for the Obesity Research Initiative from the Russell Berrie Foundation. Rudolph Leibel, MD, co-director of the Berrie Center, and Charles Zuker, PhD, professor of neuroscience and of biochemistry and molecular physics, will lead the research.

Scientists from across Columbia will take part in the initiative, which will draw on researchers from the Mortimer B. Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute, the New York Obesity Nutrition Research Center, the Berrie Center, and Columbia’s stem cell and precision medicine initiatives.

“Obesity has been traditionally viewed and approached as a metabolic disorder,” Zuker said in a statement. “This initiative brings together transformative technological advances in brain sciences, genetics, and biology, the commitment of the Berrie Foundation to combat obesity and diabetes, and the outstanding scientific and intellectual environment at Columbia to study obesity with a fresh new perspective, linking brain circuits and internal state with imbalances in physiology and metabolism.”

Payment models are increasingly recognizing the connection between mental health and obesity and diabetes. The concept of collaborative care, which puts primary care and behavioral health providers under one roof, is gaining ground as health plans look for ways to limit the human and financial cost of diabetes, which costs the United States $245 billion a year in medical costs and lost productivity. Pioneering work at the University of Washington showed this delivery model could improve glycemic indicators, reduce depression, and save money at the same time.

The Affordable Care Act promoted better connections between brain and body care, and last year, Medicare approved new codes for collaborative care for the first time in the Physician Fee Schedule.

Columbia’s effort will support both basic and translational research by faculty, students, and fellows. The environment at the Berrie Center promotes collaborations across disciplines to find new treatments for diabetes, Leibel said. “The obesity initiative is yet another realization of the foundation’s commitment to this goal,” he said.