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Concordia PhD student lands $100,000+ scholarship from CIHR to study eating disorders in adolescents

Concordia researcher Jessica Di Sante investigates the physical and mental health factors that may contribute, including early adversity
September 11, 2018
Jessica Di Sante: “We might be able to better identify youth at risk and develop more effective prevention and treatment strategies.” | Photo by Concordia University

Jessica Di Sante’s work on adolescent eating disorders has caught the attention of a major health and medical research funding agency. The second year PhD student is the latest Concordian to receive a Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) scholarship.

“Obtaining this award is encouraging and recognizes the importance of the physical and mental health issues my research addresses,” Di Sante says.

The three-year award represents $30,000 annually, plus a $5,000 per year dedicated research grant.

For her doctoral degree, Di Sante researches both the physical and mental health factors that contribute to the development of eating disorder symptoms in adolescents. She works under the supervision of Linda Booij, associate professor in the Department of Psychology and co-director of Concordia’s Centre for Clinical Research in Health (CCRH).

The impact of early life stressors

Di Sante’s research is twofold. The first study will investigate how early adversity (including, but not limited to in-utero environment and adverse childhood experiences) could predict the risk of developing eating disorder symptoms in adolescence. To achieve this, she will analyze a large data sample, including more than 1,000 boys and girls who were followed since birth.

“Most past research on this topic has been done on individuals with advanced cases of eating disorders and in clinical settings,” Di Sante says. “We are now fortunate to have access to a significant sample to pool from that will help us explore eating disorder symptoms in the general population, not just those being treated for them.”

The study will also shed light on ways childhood weight and eating behaviours — for example, being picky or overeating — may contribute to disordered eating attitudes and behaviours.

The bullying factor

Di Sante’s second study will try to discover an association between the development of eating disorder symptoms and a history of being bullied.

“There is increased evidence to think that children and teenagers who have been bullied based on their physical appearance are at particular risk of developing an eating disorder,” explains Di Sante. “But the specific mechanisms involved are still unknown.”

The research team will be using brain scans to identify patterns of reactivity in regions involved in emotional regulation. Di Sante’s studies will also be conducted in collaboration with researchers from the Sainte-Justine University Hospital Research Center.

More effective prevention and treatment

Jessica Di Sante

Di Sante joined Concordia after completing a master’s in biomedical science at Université de Montréal, also under the supervision of Booij.

She notes that her research interests go beyond the science itself. One of her main goals is to reflect on the complex, mutually informing influences between physical and mental health factors at play in eating disorders.

“Although there has been much progress, important divisions still remain between the fields,” she says. “With an improved understanding of the complexity and pervasiveness of disordered eating in general, we might be able to better identify youth at risk and develop more effective prevention and treatment strategies.”

Learn more about health research at Concordia.

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