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University of Louisville awarded $11.5 million for eating disorder research and prevention

Cheri Levinson, Director of UofL's Eating Anxiety Treatment (EAT) Lab
Giselle Rhoden
Cheri Levinson founded UofL's Eating Anxiety Treatment Lab in 2017 and has since dedicated years of research into eating disorders.

The $11.5 million in grant funding from the National Institute of Health (NIH) will fund new research to help diagnose eating disorders, examine their relationship with other psychiatric illnesses and create personalized treatment programs.

The research will be conducted at University of Louisville’s Eating Anxiety Treatment Lab headed by founder and Director Cheri Levinson.

Levinson said the funding comes from three grants that will help support new research programs to save the lives of Americans with eating disorders — nearly 30 million Americans are estimated to develop one in their lifetime. This research will help raise awareness and eliminate the stereotype that eating disorders mostly affect white adolescents, she said.

“[Eating disorders] impact people of all ages, ethnicities, race, gender identities, socioeconomic status,” Levinson said. “It's not just thin, white women. And you really can't tell from looking at somebody whether or not they have an eating disorder.”

The first grant will allow her team to study how eating disorders develop in children ages six through 12. With help from UofL’s Psychological and Brain Sciences Department, Levinson said her team will track how anxiety and other risk factors can lead to the development of an eating disorder.

With the second grant, EAT Labs will use monitored sensor bands to identify patterns of anorexia nervosa (a fear of gaining weight that can trigger an eating disorder), which contributes to suicidal ideation or other self-harming behaviors.

“Our goal is to have these types of algorithms that can predict suicidal behaviors before they happen, which could alert emergency services or clinicians,” Levinson said.

The third grant will fund a project to create personalized treatment for eating disorders. Individuals with these disorders are affected differently based on unique societal factors like racism, sexism, food insecurity or trauma, Levinson said.

“We're able to build models where we can see for one person what drives their eating disorder,” she said. “So building this entire model, we can then see what are the things that we need to work on in a personalized treatment, using data to guide clinicians.”

She hopes to use these grants to create programs to treat other psychiatric illnesses beyond eating disorders in the future.

Levinson is the most well-funded researcher in the university’s history and a recipient of NIH Director’s New Innovator Award for her work studying eating disorders, said Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Dayna Touron.

“There's no one more dedicated than Dr. Cheri Levinson, her work will undoubtedly improve the lives of millions of people in the Commonwealth in the Louisville area,” Touron said.

Giselle is LPM's breaking news reporter. Email Giselle at grhoden@lpm.org.

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