UND scientists lead $3.6 million NIH study of weight regain and depression after bariatric surgery

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News Article

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School of Medicine & Health Sciences


GRAND FORKS, N.D.—Obesity is a national epidemic. More than one-third of adults in the United States face serious health risks if they don’t lose weight, from a reduced quality of life to heart disease to diabetes to some forms of cancer. For people who have tried to lose weight through diet and exercise and have failed or for people who have to lose weight because of serious health problems, bariatric surgery is an option.

Most patients respond well to bariatric surgery. But what happens when you regain weight after bariatric surgery? Some bariatric surgery patients who regain weight also struggle with depression. Researchers from the University of North Dakota are leading a study to identify problems experienced by patients who have undergone bariatric surgery and regained weight.

Research Assistant Professor Scott Engel, PhD; and Chester Fritz Distinguished Professor and Associate Chair Stephen Wonderlich, PhD, in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Science at the UND School of Medicine and Health Sciences, are the principal investigators for the study that has received a $3.6 million, five-year grant from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, an institute within the National Institutes of Health.

“Two out of three adult Americans are overweight or obese, and some are morbidly obese,” said Joshua Wynne, MD, MBA, MPH, UND vice president for health affairs and dean of the SMHS. “Bariatric surgery is a good option for those who are morbidly obese and otherwise unable to lose weight, but the surgery can be associated with its own set of problems. A better understanding of not only the benefits but also the downside of surgery is needed, and this study should help answer many of those questions.”

Engel and Wonderlich are also research scientists for the Neuropsychiatric Research Institute in Fargo, where Wonderlich is the president and scientific director, and Engel is the director of behavioral research. Wonderlich also is chair of the Sanford Eating Disorders and Weight Management Center in Fargo. Engel and Wonderlich have assembled a team of researchers from the SMHS and NRI as well as from coast to coast to collaborate in the study titled “Post-Surgical Predictors of Weight Regain and Depression after Bariatric Surgery”:

  • Deborah Safer, MD, Stanford University Medical School, Stanford, Calif.
  • John Morton, MD, Stanford University Medical School.
  • John Gunstad, PhD, Kent State University, Kent, Ohio.
  • Dale Bond, PhD, Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University and the Miriam Hospital, Providence, R.I.
  • Ross Crosby, PhD, Neuropsychiatric Research Institute and clinical professor in the UND SMHS Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health.
  • Luis Garcia, MD, clinical associate professor of surgery at the UND SMHS, and a surgeon at Sanford Health in Fargo.

“Our research group has done considerable work on clinical outcomes following bariatric surgery,” Engel said. “The present study will focus on clarification of problems related to weight regain and depression in a sample of patients, both in Fargo, N.Dak., and in Palo Alto, Calif., who have had bariatric surgery. Participants will carry smartphones that collect information on a daily basis, and this information will be used to predict problematic outcomes over a two- to three-year span.”

Engel and Wonderlich hope the study will help to identify factors that increase the risk of negative outcomes following bariatric surgery. They believe that if such factors could be identified, it could lead to new treatment interventions, which would help to optimize bariatric surgery outcomes for more patients.

“This is important research for bariatric surgery patients,” Wonderlich said. “We are pleased to be able to draw on the talents of our research team to conduct these studies.”