Alexandra DiFeliceantonio 2008

Dr. Alexandra DiFeliceantonio '08
  • Assistant Professor, Fralin Biomedical Research Institute | Virginia Tech
  • B.S., Psychology | Sweet Briar College, 2008
  • Ph.D., Biopsychology | University of Michigan, 2013

Alexandra DiFeliceantonio wants to know what your brain looks like on snack food. An appetive neuroscientist at Virginia Tech, the 2008 Sweet Briar graduate is researching how people react to certain foods and how that reaction affects their eating habits and choices.

Alexandra DiFeliceantonio wants to know what your brain looks like on snack food. An appetive neuroscientist at Virginia Tech, the 2008 Sweet Briar graduate is researching how people react to certain foods and how that reaction affects their eating habits and choices.

“My lab just really wants to answer the question: Why do we eat what we eat,” she explains.

Her focus is on ultra-processed food, substances that have been through multiple manufacturing processes and typically have ingredients you’ve never heard of—or don’t know how to pronounce. A good way to identify this sort of food, Alex says, is “if it’s in a crinkly package in the grocery store.” These products, which can combine sugar and fat in ways seldom seen in nature, now comprise some 58 percent of all calories consumed in the United States. And they contribute to obesity, diabetes and certain types of cancer, among other health concerns.

Alex came to Sweet Briar with the idea of studying creative writing. A few psychology courses and her work in Professor Dan Gottlieb’s rat lab got her interested in how food is used as both reward and motivation. A summer spent working in a large lab at Duke University persuaded her to pursue a Ph.D. in biopsychology at the University of Michigan, the top program in the country.

“Sweet Briar really set me on that course,” she says. “Honestly when I was in high school. I was discouraged from going into math and science, I was told ‘You’re good at language.’ That preconceived idea of what women should be good at isn’t present at a woman’s college. At Sweet Briar, they actually let me explore the sciences.”

At the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at Virginia Tech Carilion, Alex and her colleagues are conducting several studies for the National Institutes of Health into how the human brain reacts to food. In one study, they show participants pictures of ultra-processed food—like snack cakes, doughnuts or corn chips with artificial flavoring—and gauge the reactions with brain scans. In others, they evaluate metabolic rates and vascular responses after participants eat the products. Alex and her research were recently cited in a Scientific American article.

All foods trigger some sort of neural response, but some processed food is designed in ways that can trick the body’s systems. “You have this really fast, potent signal that is hitting the gut and going to the brain,” Alex says. The result is like an addiction, akin to cravings for drug and alcohol, she says.

The problem is particularly acute among teenagers and young adults, who rely on ultra-processed food for more than two thirds of their calories. And it’s a concern in communities without access to fresh fruits and vegetables—and in school cafeterias where the easy-to-prepare products are often served to students. “That’s the part where it becomes a social justice and policy issue,” Alex says.