Watching what they eat
Alumni collaborate at Columbias eating disorders clinic
By Kristen Fountain 96
Members of the Columbias 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 youve 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 Clinics 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 Kotlers
case, Walshs 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 summers 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 Attias 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 Columbias 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 rats 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 didnt 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