Idaho State University associate professor of psychology Erin Rasmussen is gaining recognition for her studies on the obesity epidemic.
Rasmussen, with the help of ISU undergraduate and graduate students, is studying the epidemic from several different angles and has also completed studies of drugs that may someday be used in the United States to fight the malady.
“There has been an increase in prevalence of obesity the last 30 years, although those rates have begun to level off a bit,” Rasmussen said. “It’s a problem globally, too, not just here in the United States. The increase in obesity rates appears to be caused by environmental factors.”
The ISU psychology professor has developed several experimental models to help test her hypotheses. In a couple of her more prominent experiments she has used or is using Zucker rats, a strain of rats that is genetically predisposed to obesity. Zuckers as adults weigh two to three times as much as normal rats. Because of this trait, this strain has been used in a variety of studies on obesity for about 50 years.
“Zucker rats may literally eat themselves to an early death, just as humans may do in the wrong circumstances,” Rasmussen said.
However, Zuckers will only eat themselves to premature deaths when food is freely available. Zuckers will eat twice as much and increase their daily intake of food by more than twice as much as normal lean rats when food is easily available to them in an unlimited supply.
But Rasmussen found, through experiment, that when the price of food goes up and it isn’t free, at a certain point even Zucker rats, genetically predisposed to obesity, behave like their leaner brethren.