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Blake Gosnell says he often gets puzzled looks when he mentions his employer, Fargo's Neuropsychiatric Research Institute. "It seems like a lot of people around here don't know much about us," said Gosnell, a researcher at the ins...

Blake Gosnell says he often gets puzzled looks when he mentions his employer, Fargo's Neuropsychiatric Research Institute.

"It seems like a lot of people around here don't know much about us," said Gosnell, a researcher at the institute. "We're kind of a hidden treasure."

But the institute, tucked away in the basement of a medical building at 700 1st Ave. S., is increasingly prominent nationally in the research of eating disorders.

Established in 1986, the institute is an independent foundation affiliated with the University of North Dakota School of Medicine and MeritCare Health System. It conducts basic science and clinical research at Fargo's Eating Disorders Institute and other sites throughout the area.

Under the leadership of Dr. James Mitchell, its director, the institute has concentrated on eating disorders in the past few years.

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That focus seems well-placed. The institute recently landed a number of federal research projects involving eating disorders. They include:

E Delivering mental health treatment to rural patients suffering from bulimia nervosa, a four-year project with an annual budget of about $500,000.

E A study of the effectivness of several treatments for bulimia nervosa, a five-year project with an annual budget of about $320,000.

E A study of eating disorders and impulsivity, a three-year project with an annual budget of about $188,000.

E The treatment of binge eating, a three-year project with an annual budget of about $310,000.

E A study of the possible connection between food preference and drug abuse, a four-year project with an annual budget of about $236,000.

Gosnell, who earned a doctorate in psychology at the University of Arizona, is principal investor of the food preference/drug abuse study.

The institute has about 35 employees, a third of whom have medical degrees or doctorates. Most of the rest have master's degrees or other advanced education.

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Gosnell said there's a great deal of anecdotal evidence supporting a connection between food preference, especially sugar, and drug abuse.

He mentioned "The Man with the Golden Arm," a 1955 film starring Frank Sinatra as a heroin addict trying to kick his habit.

"There's a scene where Sinatra, trying to beat his addiction, locks himself in a room and just gulps down sugar," said Gosnell, also a clinical professor of neuroscience at the UND School of Medicine and Health Sciences.

Gosnell's study could help determine whether changes in diet could help prevent drug abuse, aid in recovery or prevent relapses.

Though his study is using animal models, most of the institute's studies involve humans, many of whom are paid.

As the institute grows and takes on more projects, it will need more human subjects, said Ron Ness, vice president of finance.

That need, as well as the desire to attract grants from nonprofit foundations, is causing the institute to seek a higher profile in the community, he said.

Gosnell doubts the institute will ever become a household name in Fargo-Moorhead.

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"But I do hope more people will know what I'm talking about when I mention where I work," he said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Jonathan Knutson at (701) 241-5530

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