BNORC Research

Boston Nutrition Obesity Research Center

BNORC Presents:      

A Profile of Miguel Alonso-Alonso, MD

Dr. Alonso-Alonso's research (with Dr. George Blackburn) investigating the problem of overeating after obesity surgery was recently featured on the WCVB-TV news.

We thank him for participating in the first of our BNORC Featured Researcher Interviews.

To contact Dr. Alonso-Alonso, please email:

Please describe your research area:

I work on the neurocognitive basis of human eating behavior. Overall, I try to understand how executive functions shape eating behavior and food choice in our daily lives, and how they interact with other factors such as sensory signals, hormones and environmental cues. In my research I use an interdisciplinary approach that combines elements of cognitive neuroscience, psychology, nutrition, and ingestive behavior, with a blend of creativity, innovation and new technologies. Most of the studies I currently do are centered around inhibitory control, a core component of executive functions that supports goal-oriented behavior and may also contribute to an individual’s ability to eat based on goals (e.g. dietary rules or health-related advice). Recent research suggests that having an adequate inhibitory control capacity over food may facilitate weight gain prevention and weight loss maintenance. Ultimately, my goal is to develop new therapeutic strategies to enhance inhibitory control over food in obesity.

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Figure 1. There is a link between the brain and nutrition via eating behavior. Eating behavior is the result of the activity of different brain areas, which work in conjunction as networks and give rise to cognitive processes(these are like the bricks of behavior). Eating behavior ultimately determines dietary patterns, food choice and nutritional intake. The influence between the brain and nutrition is bidirectional. The brain supports cognitive processes that underlie eating behavior and, on the other hand, food and nutrients influence brain function and health as well.

How did you find your way into this niche of research?

It has been an interesting and quite unexpected pathway, actually! I was trained as a ‘mainstream’ clinical neurologist in Spain, but in parallel I moved a lot across Europe to develop skills and experience in basic and translational research in neuroscience, which is really my passion. I moved to the USA in late 2005 and even though my intention here at the beginning was to do research on neurorehabilitation and brain plasticity mechanisms, I was given a challenge to develop ideas on the neuroscience of obesity. At first this sounded very unrelated given my ownbackground and focus. However, as I started reading and thinking about it, something clicked on me that triggered a huge motivation for this topic. Personally, I have and have had my own issues with eating and I was born in a region of Spain called Galicia where social life literally takes place all the time around food. So in the end the interest was there but it was the challenge that helped it spark, I believe.

Obesity is such an important health problem at the root of so many chronic diseases we face nowadays. Quite surprisingly, research in obesity is taking a direction toward merging with neuropsychology, neuropsychiatry and cognitive neuroscience. I believe I am in a good position to translate quickly what is known in other areas into this field, acting as a bridge across disciplines given my background. Understanding the brain and cognitive basis of eating behavior and obesity has been my main focus of research since 2007.

What is the main thrust of your current research?

I am very excited about two lines of work:

1. Therapeutic: A new experimental intervention combining noninvasive brain modulation and cognitive training targeting inhibitory control over food. I am testing this approach to try to enhance weight loss after bariatric surgery (gastric banding) and to facilitate weight loss maintenance following weight loss induced by a very-low calorie diet. The Pilot and Feasibility grant from BNORC is supporting the former project.

2. Methodological: A new tool to objectively assess meal behavior that I have been developing over the past three years. It amazes me how little we know about the role of cognition during a meal. We hear often in the media about consumer research studies, but there is still a gap in there with the hard science, specifically ingestive behavior and neurocognition where I believe this methodology could find a place.

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Figure 2. Eating behavior may arise as the interaction of two competing systems in humans. Many times in our daily lives we face the dilemma of either succumbing to food that is tasty, rewarding, cheap and easily available, or avoiding it on the basis of a goal, associated with dietary advice, health information, religious norms etc. Research shows that the ability to resist the effect of appetizing food relies on the strength of brain circuits that are located in lateral areas of the brain, especially in the most anterior sector, the prefrontal cortex.

What is the role of BNORC in your research?

I am very thankful to BNORC, I am the recipient of a 2012 Pilot and Feasibility grant. This grant is allowing me to generate preliminary data (feasibility ad preliminary evidence) to support an NIH grant application. But the benefit provided by BNORC goes well beyond the funds, it is also about being part of something, meeting other obesity and nutrition researchers in the area, getting advice from senior researchers, developing visibility, attending meetings and seminars etc. For instance, BNORC sponsored a symposium in 2011 that I co-chaired at Harvard Medical School related to my line of research, called, "Your brain can help you eat better."

As I have transitioned recently into this research area, the platform that BNORC represents is a great asset to accelerate that process. Overall, BNORC is providing me with support at a very critical moment in my career. I am not using any research core at the moment, but I hope I can partner with other researchers in the future and provide resources for others who have interest in this area and want to use or add neurocognitive assessments to their studies.

What is a non-research interest or hobby of yours?

I love street walking, outdoor sports, swimming, playing the piano, traveling and exploring new restaurants.

Is that something you do to get away from research, or does it help you think about your research?

A bit of everything. It is true that I think about work a lot. Sometimes ideas pop up in the most unconventional or unexpected way. I enjoy observing and relating what I see to my life and work.

What, in your opinion, is the secret to being a good scientist?

I think the fundamental pillars are passion for knowledge and creativity, but with a huge amount of discipline and attention to detail. Beyond science, I think a good scientist must also be a good human being, genuine, generous, friendly, open-minded and also with a good sense of direction, strategy and a good manager, especially in this environment.

Thank you, Dr. Alonso-Alsonso!

Miguel Alonso-Alonso, MD

Education history

MD, University of Santiago de Compostela, Spain (1998)

MSc, Clinical Neuroscience (distinction), University College London, UK (2000)

Diploma de EstudiosAvanzados, Neuroscience, University of Vigo, Spain (2003)

Neurology Board Certification, Ministry of Health, Spain (2005)

MMSc, Clinical Investigation Training Program, Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technologies, Harvard Medical School (2008)

Recent publications

Troung, DQ, MagerowskiG, Blackburn GL, Bikson M, Alonso-Alonso M. Computational modeling of transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) in obesity: impact of head fat and dose guidelines. (submitted)

Troung, DQ, MagerowskiG, Pascual-Leone A, Alonso-Alonso M, Bikson M. Finite Element Study of Skin and Fat Delineation in an Obese Subject for Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation. ConfProc IEEE Eng Med Biol Soc. 2012:6587-90.

Pagoto S, Curtin C, Bradley M, Appelhans BM, Alonso-Alonso M. Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and the Clinical Management of Obesity. Current Obesity Reports.2012;1:80-86.

Alonso-Alonso M, Ziemke F, Magkos F, Barrios FA, Brinkoetter M, Boyd I, Rifkin-Graboi A, Yannakoulia M, Rojas R, Pascual-Leone A, Mantzoros CS. Brain responses to food images during the early and late follicular phase of the menstrual cycle in healthy young women: relation to fasting and feeding. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2011;94(2):377-84.

Joseph RJ, Alonso-Alonso M, Bond DS, Pascual-Leone A, Blackburn GL. The neurocognitive connection between physical activity and eating behaviour. Obesity Reviews. 2011;12(10):800-12.

Alonso-Alonso M, Pascual-Leone A. The right brain hypothesis for obesity. Journal of the American Medical Association. 2007;297(16)1819-1822.