On November 16, 2023, the Government of Canada announced the latest round of Canada Excellence Research Chairs (CERC). Included among the names was Darcy Wagner, PhD, who is set to begin her tenure as CERC in Lung Regenerative Medicine in 2024, and Dana Small, PhD, who recently joined the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences as CERC in Metabolism and the Brain. We caught up with Prof. Small to ask her about her work. 

In Canada, obesity is the leading cause of diabetes and heart disease, and a strong risk factor for depression, certain cancers, Alzheimer’s disease, and all-cause mortality. Prof. Small, who completed graduate degrees in Neuroscience and Clinical Psychology at McGill and was most recently a professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Yale University, leads pioneering work that combines human neuroimaging and metabolic measures with animal models to reveal new insights into the mechanisms linking obesity and brain disorders.  

As CERC, Prof. Small plans to develop a paradigm-shifting approach to combat the obesity and diabetes pandemics. As the founder and director of the Modern Diet and Physiology Research Center, an international consortium that supports science in gut-brain health, the Chair will also bring new capacity to research at McGill and synergize with its world-class neuroscience and metabolism research and training programs to benefit the University, Quebec and Canada. 

What first drew you to pursue your studies and career in the health sciences? 

I have wanted to be a neuroscientist for as long as I can remember. My mother has epilepsy and as a child I would see her lose consciousness and I wanted to understand how and why that happened. Neuropsychology and neuroscience was, therefore, an obvious choice. 

Can you tell us about the focus of your research and why it is important? 
My research seeks to understand how the brain integrates information from the external environment with unconscious signals generated within the body so that behaviour and metabolism can be optimized. Discoveries about these body – brain circuits are providing new insights into fundamental aspects of cognition and behaviour and also helping us to understand the mechanisms linking metabolic and neurological and psychiatric diseases like obesity,  Alzheimer’s disease and depression. My group is particularly interested understanding how these body-brain circuits are impacted by the modern food environment to influence health and well-being. 

What are you hoping are the next steps for you? 

Our first focus will be on developing new methods to simultaneously measure brain, behaviour and metabolic responses. Once these are in place, there are many fundamental questions about body – brain interactions that remain unknown and are ripe for investigation. For example, we now understand that the critical signals underlying food reward come not from the mouth, but rather the gut. However, little is known about the nature of these signals and how they are integrated into brain circuits underlying perception and decision making. 

What makes Montreal and McGill an attractive place for you to pursue this? 

McGill has always been a leader in the neuroscience of motivated behaviour. The neuroimaging environment here is also, in my opinion, unparalleled in the world both in terms of infrastructure and local expertise. This is topped off with a group of researchers and leaders that value collaboration and discovery. Additionally, there are very strong centres of expertise in nutrition and metabolism. It is the best place to accomplish my goals. 

Do you have any messages for the McGill community or anything you want to add? 

 Thank you for the warm welcome! I am delighted to join the community!