Web Exclusives: Alumni Spotlight

September 11, 2002

Watching what they eat
Alumni collaborate at Columbia’s eating disorders clinic

By Kristen Fountain ’96

Members of the Columbia’s Eating Disorders Clinic — Lauren Escott ’99, Evelyn Attia ’82, Michael Devlin ’78, and Tim Walsh ’67 — and in back Professor of Psychology Bart Hoebel outside Frist Campus Center during a visit in May to discuss a research grant.

Walk into the Eating Disorders Clinic at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center in Manhattan and you might think you’ve landed in a psychology lab in Green Hall — judging from the number of alumni on staff. The Tiger count in this busy research unit above the Hudson River has been as high as one-third of the Clinic’s 21 psychiatrists, psychologists, nutritionists, and other personnel.

Long-time Director Tim Walsh ’67 and Clinical Co-Directors Evelyn Attia ’82 and Michael Devlin ’78 have worked together for more than 10 years. Research psychologist Lisa Kotler ’89 joined the team four years ago. The group initially assembled as a result of shared research interests and, in Lisa Kotler’s case, Walsh’s widespread reputation as an expert in child psychiatry. As a result of Princeton networking, research assistants Lauren Escott ’99 (now a graduate student at Boston University) and Dana Satir ’01 and last summer’s intern Jenny Edwards ’03 also climbed on board.

Together they study and treat anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating. As part of the state-funded New York Psychiatric Institute, the Eating Disorders Clinic offers free intensive counseling, in-house stays, and other care to patients who participate in research.

Current research ranges from Attia’s work measuring serotonin levels in anorexic patients and Devlin's development of nutritional and therapeutic treatment for binge eaters who are also obese, to Kotler's project adapting adult drug treatments to children and adolescents with eating disorders, and Walsh's diverse studies of the psychology of bulimia. They are also involved in a large study tracking the rates of relapse among anorexic patients taking Prozac.

In addition to their posts at the Clinic, all four are faculty members at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. Walsh, a chemistry major at Princeton, is a professor of pediatric psychopharmacology and director of clinical research in the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Devlin, a biochemical sciences major, and Attia, a history major, are associate clinical professors of psychiatry, and Kotler, a psychology major, is an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry.

This year, another university tie is helping the clinic launch a multimillion-dollar research grant that will mine new findings about the feeding behavior of lab animals for insights into human eating disorders. The project was born in December 2000, when Kotler encouraged Walsh to join her at an evening seminar series on obesity research at Columbia’s main campus. Her senior thesis adviser, Professor of Psychology Bart Hoebel, gave the talk.

That evening Hoebel described intriguing results that suggest connections between binge eating and addiction: Adult rats fed sugar-water and solid food, according to a schedule that limits access to the water (up to 12 hours per day), will drink up to twice as much during the first hour compared to a control group with free rein. Within a week, the restricted animals consume 20 to 25 percent of their total daily sugar-water intake during the first hour, a voraciousness he described as “binge-like.”

Equally suggestive, rats that are denied their regular dose of sugar-water after a month of bingeing will begin the teeth chattering and head- and paw-shaking typical of addicted animals in withdrawal. In the binging cycle and during withdrawal, a sugar-happy rat’s brain also shows changes in dopamine and other neurochemical levels similar to lab animals given cocaine and morphine.

For clinic researchers on the lookout for experimental psychology translatable to a medical setting, the presentation paid off. After the talk, Kotler made the introductions and Walsh and Hoebel began discussing collaboration. “The Princeton connection gave us a common link and facilitated a lot of this getting started,” she concluded. Ultimately, Walsh, Devlin, and Hoebel submitted a multipart, five-year proposal in conjunction with seven other laboratory and clinical scientists from Columbia and Cornell.

For Walsh, Devlin, and Attia frequent trips back to Green Hall to fine-tune lab-to-clinic crossover techniques only add to the already palpable Princeton office presence. Besides the hallway Reunions talk and the ubiquitous college mug, a few Columbia IDs dangle from unabashedly orange neck straps.

The paraphernalia, according to Attia, is just a physical sign of the personal bonds that make the clinic run. “When I was at Princeton, I didn’t have much of a sense of what it would mean for me later,” she said. “Having that shared experience is now an important part of our group.”


Kristen Fountain is a freelance science writer living in New York City.