Obesity is a major health epidemic in the United States, affecting more than 93 million adults — 40% of the adult population — according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It is linked to chronic conditions such as heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and certain types of cancer, and is estimated to result in more than $150 billion in annual medical costs. While the primary factors contributing to overeating and poor food choices are well known, the effectiveness and long-term outcomes of obesity treatments have been disappointing. This is likely due to a poor understanding of the biology driving eating behaviors, how it differs across patient groups, and how it is affected by psychosocial and environmental factors, as well as by specific treatments.


Arpana “Annie” Church, PhD, an assistant professor and co-director of the Goodman-Luskin Microbiome Center, is addressing this critical public health concern. Dr. Church’s research aims to bring a systems biology-based, comprehensive understanding of the pathophysiology underlying human obesity and the cluster of obesity-related conditions known as metabolic syndrome.

As evidence mounts of the importance of the bidirectional interactions between the brain and the gut in shaping health and disease, Dr. Church’s laboratory is homing in on the environmental and biological factors that shape these interactions, with substantial implications for susceptibility to obesity and metabolic syndrome. In particular, Dr. Church is interested in how brain-gut communications are affected by early adversity — including physical, emotional, sexual, and general trauma — and by psychological stresses in adulthood such as discrimination, as well as the potential role of protective factors such as resilience and exercise.

It's an interest Dr. Church traces to her experience growing up in Zambia. The land today is associated with so much beauty and wonder but it is also wrapped in a backdrop of inequalities and oppression, all contributing to a history of glaring health disparities that are present even today. At the time, the highest attainable level of education in the small Zambian township where Dr. Church lived was seventh grade. But she persevered against the odds, coming to the U.S. for her undergraduate education and ultimately earning a PhD in Psychology from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Following a clinical internship at Massachusetts General Hospital/Harvard Medical Center, Dr. Church arrived at UCLA for her postdoctoral training in 2012. She has been a member of the UCLA Vatche and Tamar Manoukian Division of Digestive Diseases faculty since 2015.

Today, Dr. Church is employing advanced automated and mathematical analytic techniques to integrate information from multiple neuroimaging sources, genetic profiles, microbiome markers, and both behavioral and adverse environmental factors to pinpoint important obesity-related biomarkers that take into account sex and race differences. Her goal is to develop a comprehensive model that would use these power and sensitive biomarkers to identify individuals at increased risk of obesity as a result of their disadvantaged backgrounds. Through a better understanding of the bio-psychosocial factors that contribute to individuals consuming food beyond their homeostatic needs, Dr. Church’s research is laying the groundwork for the development of more effective, targeted, and personalized obesity therapies.