Miguel Alonso-Alonso, MD, PhD

Assistant Professor of Surgery, Harvard Medical School

Director, Laboratory of Bariatric and Nutritional Neuroscience, BIDMC

Research Group

Gabrielle Giacona
Greta Magerowski, BA
Sean Manton, BS
Nicole Milani
Helen Mizrach
Jorge Hevia Orozco, MD PhD
Laura Patriarca, BS

Research Focus

In our laboratory we study eating behavior, nutrition and obesity in human subjects. We are particularly interested in complex regulatory aspects that go beyond homeostasis and the hypothalamus. It is now established that the interplay between brain regions related to reward processing and those that support complex aspects of cognition, such as executive functions, play a critical role in human eating behavior and obesity. This emerging neurocognitive model can help identify new targets to accelerate the development of preventive and therapeutic strategies for obesity. Our research combines nutrition, psychology and clinical measures with cutting-edge noninvasive cognitive neuroscience tools, such as computerized testing, functional neuroimaging and neurotechnologies. Our laboratory has two main goals. First, we want to understand the neurocognitive basis of human nutrition, eating behavior and obesity. Second, we want to develop innovative applications and tools derived from this research for quantitative assessment, diagnostics, and therapeutics.

Ongoing research includes:

Development of new methodologies to study the neurocognitive basis of human eating behavior

The study of human eating behavior has typically relied on self-report measures and the use of restricted experimental settings that do not capture the complexity of food choices and the situational component that we face when confronted with food. We are developing a methodological platform to simultaneously monitor and evaluate neural, cognitive, and behavioral measures during a meal conducted in a semi-naturalistic setting. This method integrates electroencephalography and portable eye-tracking together with behavioral and nutritional assessments. Potential applications include precision phenotyping of individuals and early evaluation of interventions. Additionally, we have developed a programmable computerized meal table with capabilities to sense and display information during the course of a meal. This novel tool fills a gap in the field as it allows experimental manipulation of the meal with an unprecedented level of possibilities. In addition to meal-related methodologies, we have also developed computerized tests to assess cognitive domains related to food. These tasks are being used by local, national, and international research teams.

Application of noninvasive neuromodulation for obesity therapeutics

We continue to conduct research studies examining the use of transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) in patients with obesity. Following the report of weight loss with anodal tDCS over the left prefrontal cortex (Gluck, Alonso-Alonso et al. Obesity 2015) we have continued working in the same direction to try to replicate and extend the findings. Interest for the use of tDCS in obesity has grown substantially in the past two years and, as a result, we have established a network of international research collaborations in this area to conduct clinical trials to accelerate and scale data collection. Ongoing studies are exploring new targets, such as the role of prefronto-cerebellar connections in appetite, the effects of lateral occipital region in food-specific attention, and genetic influences in the response to tDCS.

Look AHEAD Extension trial

I am a Co-Investigator of the NIH-NIDDK Look AHEAD Extension trial, responsible for the BIDMC portion of the Boston site. The primary aims of this trial are to test legacy effects of the intervention on increased lifespan and reduced health care costs, while the secondary aim is to determine its effect on key dimensions of healthy aging.

Accomplishments 2016-2017

During this period I have continued to serve as a member of the Boston Nutrition Obesity Research Center (BNORC), formerly being part of the Executive Committee, and the Harvard Nutrition and Obesity Research Center (NORCH).

Editorial Roles

I have been an ad hoc reviewer for a number of top journals in the field, including American Journal of Psychiatry, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Neuropsychopharmacology, Appetite, and Brain Stimulation and an Associate Editor of Frontiers in Eating Behavior.

Invited Presentations

I have been invited to give talks in a growing number of venues and institutions:

On bites, bytes and brains: new technologies to study and manipulate human eating behavior; Longwood Nutrition Seminar, Division of Nutrition, Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA, 2017

Prospects for neuromodulation in obesity; NYC Neuromodulation Conference, New York, NY 2017

New methodologies to study and manipulate human eating behavior; Basque Culinary Center, San Sebastian, Spain, 2017

Mens sana in corpore sano: recent advances in obesity and the brain; Pronokal Scientific Symposium, Valencia, Spain, 2017

Reprogramming brain and meals: applications in obesity; Jlabs Umass Lowell, Lowell, MA (Johnson & Johnson Innovation), Lowell, MA, 2017

Neurocognitive basis of obesity and prospects for the use of neuromodulation with tDCS; Graduate Program in Medical Sciences, LabEEL, UERJ, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 2017

Neurocognitive basis of obesity and prospects for the use of neuromodulation with tDCS; Taipei Medical University Hospital, Taipei City, Taiwan, 2017

“Making laboratory meals great again”: new approaches to study human eating behavior and neurocognition. Monday Nutrition Seminars. Department of Nutrition, Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health. Boston, MA, 2017

Subliminal impact of basic tastes for decision making on food selections; International Congress of Nutrition IUNS, Buenos Aires, Argentina, 2017

Teaching, Training, and Education

Teaching, mentoring and training are important activities of the Laboratory. Approximately 30% of my time involves supervision of students, fellows, and laboratory members in areas of nutrition, eating behavior, obesity and the brain. After the successful HMS Division of Nutrition Symposium, “Your brain can help you eat better” in 2011, and, more recently, Hacking Eating Tracking in 2015, our laboratory has attracted more attention and we are very often contacted for internship and fellowship opportunities. During 2016-2017, we hosted national and international visiting scholars for specific training in the use of tDCS in obesity: Jeffrey Liou, MD (Taiwan), Priscila Giacomo Fassini, PhD (Brazil), Chi Tang, MD (Boston University Medical Center), and Jorge Hevia Orozco, MD, PhD (Mexico).

Selected Research Support

Action for Health in Diabetes Extension Study Research Project; NIH, 2016-2021; Co-investigator: Miguel Alonso-Alonso, MD, PhD (PI: David Nathan, MD, Massachusetts General Hospital)

Effects of a nutritional shake on brain and cognitive function; Nutrient Foods, LLC, 2015-2017; PI: Miguel Alonso-Alonso, MD, PhD

Feihe Nutrition Laboratory; Feihe International LLC, 2015-2019; Collaborator: Miguel Alonso-Alonso, MD, PhD (PI: Elliot Chaikof, MD PhD, BIDMC)

Selected Publications

Bashir S, Vernet M, Najib U, Perez J, Alonso-Alonso M, Knobel M, Yoo WK, Edwards D, Pascual-Leone A. Enhanced motor function and its neurophysiological correlates after navigated low-frequency repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation over the contralesional motor cortex in stroke. Restor Neurol Neurosci 2016;34(4):677-89.

Patriarca L, Magerowski G, Alonso-Alonso M. Functional neuroimaging in obesity. Curr Opin Endocrinol Diabetes Obes 2017;24(3):260-5.

Amo C, De Santiago L, Zarza Luciáñez D, León Alonso-Cortés JM, Alonso-Alonso M, Barea R, Boquete L. Induced gamma band activity from EEG as a possible index of training-related brain plasticity in motor tasks. PLoS One 2017;12(10):e0186008.

Heinitz S, Reinhardt M, Piaggi P, Weise CM, Diaz E, Stinson EJ, Venti C, Votruba SB, Wassermann EM, Alonso-Alonso M, Krakoff J, Gluck ME. Neuromodulation directed at the prefrontal cortex of subjects with obesity reduces snack food intake and hunger in a randomized trial. Am J Clin Nutr 2017;106(6):1347-1357.

Bikson M, Paneri B, Mourdoukoutas A, Esmaeilpour Z, Badran BW, Azzam R, Adair D, Datta A, Fang XH, Wingeier B, Chao D, Alonso-Alonso M, Lee K, Knotkova H, Woods AJ, Hagedorn D, Jeffery D, Giordano J, Tyler WJ. Limited output transcranial electrical stimulation (LOTES-2017): Engineering principles, regulatory statutes, and industry standards for wellness, over-the-counter, or prescription devices with low risk. Brain Stimul 2018;11(1):134-157.