Professor giving a lecture to students in old main
Wofford professor explores obesity causes

Anti-anxiety drugs could be a factor

By Trevor Anderson
Published: Saturday, September 8, 2012 

A Wofford College psychology professor is taking the lead on a ground-breaking study to identify the connection between overeating and some high-profile anti-anxiety drugs.

David Pittman and his collaborator, J.P. Baird, associate professor of psychology at Amherst College in Massachusetts, have received a $414,000 Academic Research Enhancement Award from the National Institutes of Health's National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders.

The professors will use the grant to research mechanisms and brain areas involved in the overeating side effect of benzodiazepines.

Benzodiazepines are a class of medicines that slow the body's central nervous system to help relieve nervousness, tension and other symptoms of anxiety. Some of the most common types include Librium, Xanax, Klonopin, Valium and Ativan.

Pittman will serve as the principle investigator and will use $342,422 of the grant. Baird will use the remainder to conduct support research.

“We are colleagues and have been working together for the last five or six years on this project,” Pittman said. “In our field, we're up against the largest institutions in the country, so it makes sense for us to team up and attack research questions in a collaborative way.”

Pittman is an associate professor of psychology at Wofford and coordinator for the program in Neuroscience. He also serves as faculty adviser for the Kappa Sigma fraternity and the Psychology Kingdom student organization.

In his lab, Pittman and his students have been testing the “licking responses” of rats administered benzodiazepines to various taste solutions. He said early research has indicated that the medications actually enhance the taste of food, which caused the rats to overeat.

“We ended up with a lot of fat rats,” he said.

Baird's research measures neural signals in specific areas of the brain involved with taste and appetite. So far, the results have been positive, Pittman said.

“Benzodiazepines have been out for a while,” he said. “(Researchers) originally thought that they affected motivational aspects. We thought maybe there is a more specific effect on taste … Our preliminary research suggests that under the influence of these drugs, foods become more palatable and the propensity for weight gain is much higher.”

Pittman said more than 6 million people per year are diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder, and about half of them are prescribed benzodiazepines. He hopes his research will help doctors better understand the mechanisms that underlie weight gain associated with the medications and pass on that information to their patients.

About one-third of American adults, and nearly a quarter of children and adolescents, are considered to be overweight or obese, according Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Obesity has been determined to increase the risk of various metabolic disorders, in particular cardiovascular disease, which is the number one killer in the U.S., the CDC said.

Students at Wofford and Amherst will be involved in the study, Pittman said. The research will be conducted year-round, including the next three summers for the duration of the grant. One student from each college will work with students in an innovative exchange program for student research fellows.

“We are very excited about this,” Pittman said. “It's a tremendous opportunity for our students.”

Pittman earned his Bachelor of Science degree from Wofford in 1994. He went on to get a master's in psychology and Ph.D. in neuroscience from Florida State University.

Since arriving at Wofford to teach in 2001, he has received a spate of awards and has been published in multiple professional publications.

An avid Jimmy Buffet fan, Pittman was guitarist and lead singer of the cover band CoconutHead at FSU. He is friends with Buffett's lead guitarist, Peter Mayer. Mayer has visited Wofford several times and participated as guest lecturer in Pittman's songwriting interim course.

Pittman, a husband and father of two, also enjoys organizing Wofford football tailgating events. He has even launched a website ( devoted to the cause, and he comes up with themes for each tailgate, including this year the “Blues Brothers,” “Cheeseburgers in Paradise” and “Mardis Gras.”

The professor is active in a variety of sports and has even competed in a few marathons. In 2009, he rode his bike to and from campus as part of his training for a triathlon.

Mostly, Pittman is credited with furthering the academic futures of his students.

“Dr. Pittman continues providing tremendous opportunities to do publication-quality research — six publications in the past six years that included 20 student co-authors,” David Wood, Wofford dean, said in a statement. “His leading-edge research in the area of obesity, his creation of the Health Eating Decisions program for elementary school children in the fight against childhood obesity, and his teaching and research that has involved so many Wofford students are just some of the reasons he received the 2011 Roger Milliken Award for Excellence in the Teaching of Science.”

According to its website, NIH funds more than 300,000 researchers at more than 2,500 universities and institutions nationwide. About 6,000 scientists work at its research laboratory on its main campus in Bethesda, Md., which is also home to its Clinical Center, the largest clinical research hospital in the world.

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