From left: Kevin Gardner, Executive Vice President for Research and Innovation; Dayna Touron, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences; Cheri Levinson, associate professor; and Kim Schatzel, president, announce $11.5 million from the National Institutes of Health to support eating disorder research.

A University of Louisville researcher has been awarded $11.5 million from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to better understand and address some of the most devastating effects of eating disorders.

Eating disorders affect an estimated 9% of Americans — nearly 30 million people — and can impact a person’s eating behaviors and perceptions about food and their bodies. The UofL research, backed by three grants, will investigate how eating disorders may develop in childhood and adolescence, their contribution to suicidal behaviors and how innovative personalized treatment may offer hope.

“UofL has made a longstanding commitment to groundbreaking research and discovery that makes a positive impact on our world,” said President Kim Schatzel. “This is research that can save and improve the lives of millions of Americans and many, many more around the world impacted by eating disorders.”

Cheri Levinson, associate professor in the UofL College of Arts and Sciences and director of the Eating Anxiety Treatment (EAT) Lab. Photo by Ben Marcum.
Cheri Levinson, associate professor in the UofL College of Arts and Sciences and director of the Eating Anxiety Treatment (EAT) Lab. Photo by Ben Marcum.

The work is led by researcher Cheri Levinson, who specializes in the study and intervention of eating and anxiety disorders. The key, she said, is a personalized approach to diagnosis and treatment, recognizing that these disorders affect people of all different ages, ethnicities, gender identities and backgrounds, and individualizing treatment to each specific person.

“Despite the high prevalence of these conditions, there are few available treatment and prevention options,” said Levinson, an associate professor in the UofL College of Arts and Sciences and director of the Eating Anxiety Treatment (EAT) Lab. “This work not only will create options, but opens this whole possibility for treatments that are personalized based on the individual. Because eating disorders don’t just affect one kind of person and there are a multitude of different factors that can influence them.”

Through an NIH research project grant totaling nearly $4 million, Levinson’s team will study how eating disorders develop in childhood and beyond, with the hope their findings can help avert the large personal and societal costs associated with childhood onset and chronic disorders. Recent studies show more than one in five kids worldwide may show signs of disordered eating.

A second project grant, also nearly $4 million, will identify patterns of anorexia nervosa — an eating disorder characterized by a fear of gaining weight — that contribute to suicide risk, with data providing a model of personalized psychiatric medicine and new methods of prevention and treatment. Currently, patients with anorexia have a suicide risk 18 times higher than those without an eating disorder.

The third grant, a prestigious NIH Director’s New Innovator Award, also worth nearly $4 million across two phases, will further the creation and dissemination of a novel personalized treatment for eating disorders and integrate social determinants of health (food insecurity, racism) into treatment. The New Innovator Award, part of NIH’s High-Risk, High-Reward Research program, supports unusually innovative research from early-career investigators who are within 10 years of their final degree or clinical residency. Levinson is the first from UofL and the first studying eating disorders to receive this award.

“Our mission at the College of Arts and Sciences is to improve life in the Commonwealth, including by creating new knowledge through groundbreaking research and innovation,” said Dayna Touron, the college’s dean. “Dr. Levinson’s work will undoubtedly improve the lives of millions living with eating disorders, and we are very proud to count her among our faculty.”

These grants are the culmination of years of groundbreaking work by Levinson and her team, for which they earned a UofL Trailblazer Award in early 2023. The research has also received support through UofL’s Office of Research and Innovation, including mentoring through the Ascending Stars Fellows Program for promising mid-career faculty. 

Work to develop a companion personalized treatment application and virtual reality technology has also been supported by the office’s Innovation and Commercialization and UofL New Ventures teams. This includes patenting, entrepreneurial coaching and training and financial support through two innovation development programs: KYNETIC, focused on furthering biomedical technologies, and PRePARE, focused on technologies that address a health or societal problem resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“UofL has built a strong and vibrant ecosystem and supports for important research like this, that can improve and save lives,” said Kevin Gardner, UofL’s executive vice president for research and innovation. “We’re so proud of the work Dr. Levinson and her team are doing and the positive impacts it will have across the U.S. and the globe.”