Laura Holsen, PhD​

Dr. Laura Holsen is a clinical neuroscientist working at the intersection of stress, eating behaviors, hormones, and brain, and sex differences therein. Dr. Holsen received her MS in developmental psychology from Vanderbilt University and her PhD in child and developmental psychology from the University of Kansas. She completed her postdoctoral fellowship in affective neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin – Madison.


Since joining BWH over 10 years ago, Dr. Holsen has been faculty with both the Division of Women’s Health and Department of Psychiatry. She is co-Chair of the BRI-Connors Center for Research on Women’s Health and Gender Biology, active on a number of additional internal and external committees, professional societies, and grant review committees, and was recently elected to full membership in the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology.


Dr. Holsen’s research focuses on the biological mechanisms – neural, neuroendocrine, and genetic – behind abnormal food motivation; stress response functioning and emotion regulation in individuals with major depression; the role of ghrelin and other metabolic hormones in mesolimbic circuitry responsivity, stress-related food intake, and cognitive functioning; and investigations of neural mechanisms of successful long-term weight loss maintenance. Research in Dr. Holsen’s lab uses functional MRI and neuroendocrine assessment in mood disorders, eating disorders, and obesity, with a goal of ameliorating the negative health outcomes of these conditions through identification of modifiable neurobiological targets that drive appetite, eating behaviors and cognition, and weight change.


Learn more about Dr. Holsen’s work by visiting the Holsen Lab website.

Brigham & Women’s Hospital
Associate Psychologist, Division of Women’s Health, Department of Medicine
Research Associate, Department of Psychiatry
Harvard Medical School
Associate Professor of Psychiatry

Areas of Expertise

Current Research

In her work related to the role of ghrelin and other metabolic hormones in mesolimbic circuitry responsivity, stress-related food intake, and cognitive functioning, Dr. Holsen is currently examining the effects of psychosocial stress on the relationship between ghrelin and brain activity/connectivity to food and non-food reward in individuals with depression, including examination of epigenetic regulation of psychosocial stress. She is also analyzing the relationships between ghrelin, brain structure/function in regions involved in cognition and food intake, and memory and decision-making in postmenopausal women with and without obesity.


She is also collaborating with colleagues at MGH on a project examining how underlying neurobiological abnormalities contribute to both phenotypic presentations and outcomes in avoidant and restrictive eating in childhood and adolescence. Additional work is exploring whether alterations in food motivation pathways in specific brain regions underlie restricting, bingeing, and purging in girls with low-weight eating disorders, and whether these alterations are associated with long-term outcomes. With collaborators in the MGH Neuroendocrine Unit, Dr. Holsen is working to understand the underlying neural mechanisms of oxytocin-induced weight change via a randomized placebo-controlled investigation.


In her research looking at major depression and the role of stress response functioning and emotion regulation, Dr. Holsen and investigators at MGH and McLean aim to characterize GABA metabolism and brain activity deficits related to anhedonia in adolescents with major depression. Another study is linking fetal immune pathway disruptions with sex differences in adult deficits in negative emotion processing and mood symptomatology/depression and identifying impact of immune pathophysiology on aging of negative emotion processing. With colleagues in the Psychiatry Department, Dr. Holsen is contributing to studies using a lifespan and longitudinal approach to understanding brain markers of oxidative stress, looking at how they relate to brain function and decline in bipolar disorder, and the role of the brain in response to stress as it relates to vasomotor symptom regulation in postmenopausal women.



  • Ghrelin Modulation of Mesolimbic Reward Signaling in Stress-induced Hyperphagia (NIDDK, PI)
  • Neurocognitive Changes in Obesity (BWH, PI)
  • Effects of Psychosocial Stress on Transcriptomic and Neural Mechanisms in Trauma-exposed Women with Major Depressive Disorder (BWH, PI)
  • Sex, Hormones, and GABA in Stress Induced Anhedonia in Depression (NIMH, Co-I)
  • Aging of Emotion Circuitry: Impact of Sex, Depression, and Fetal Immune Origins (NIA, Co-I)
  • Neurobiological and Behavioral Risk Mechanisms of Youth Avoidant/Restrictive Eating Trajectories (NIMH, Co-I)
  • Oxytocin and Weight Loss in Humans (NIDDK, Co-I)
  • Oxidative Stress and Bipolar Disorder Trajectories (NIMH, Co-I)
  • Sex Differences in Major Depression: Impact of Prenatal Stress-Immune and Autonomic Dysregulation (NIMH, Co-I)
  • Center for Stress and Neural Regulation of Reproductive Aging Health Outcomes (NIA, Co-I)

Select Past Research

  • Neural Mechanisms Underlying Abnormal Food Reward Processing in Depressed Women (NIMH)
    Identified the shared and unshared mechanisms behind variable weight outcomes in major depressive disorder (MDD) through investigation of differences in brain activation, hormone levels, and relationships between these potential biomarkers and behavior in women with MDD.
  • Neural Mechanisms of Food-Related Emotion Regulation in the Prediction of Bariatric Surgery Outcomes (Nutrition Obesity Research Center at Harvard)
    Characterized the relationships between neural pathways guiding food-related emotion regulation, maladaptive eating behaviors, mood dysfunction, and weight loss in bariatric surgery patients with varying degrees of emotional eating behaviors.
  • Long-term Effects of Diet Composition on Brain Reward Activity (Nutrition Science Initiative and Boston Children’s Hospital)
    A neuroimaging sub-study to determine the long-term effects of adherence to high, medium, and low glycemic load diets during weight-loss maintenance on homeostatic and reward-related brain activity and connectivity (through affiliation with an ongoing randomized control trial parent grant).

Select Publications

Holsen LM, Hoge WS, Lennerz BS, Cerit H, Hye T, Moondra P, Goldstein JM, Ebbeling CB, Ludwig DS. Diets Varying in Carbohydrate Content Differentially Alter Brain Activity in Homeostatic and Reward Regions in Adults. J Nutr. 2021 Apr 14:nxab090. Epub ahead of print. PMID: 33852013.

Kerem L, Van De Water AL, Kuhnle MC, Harshman S, Hauser K, Eddy KT, Becker KR, Misra M, Micali N, Thomas JJ, Holsen L, Lawson EA. Neurobiology of Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder in Youth with Overweight/Obesity Versus Healthy Weight. J Clin Child Adolesc Psychol. 2021 Mar 26:1-14. Epub ahead of print. PMID: 33769133.

Holsen LM, Huang G, Cherkerzian S, Aroner S, Loucks EB, Buka S, Handa RJ, Goldstein JM. Sex Differences in Hemoglobin A1c Levels Related to the Comorbidity of Obesity and Depression. J Womens Health (Larchmt). 2021 Feb 2. Epub ahead of print. PMID: 33534642.

Kerem L, Holsen L, Fazeli P, Bredella MA, Mancuso C, Resulaj M, Holmes TM, Klibanski A, Lawson EA. Modulation of neural fMRI responses to visual food cues by overeating and fasting interventions: A preliminary study. Physiol Rep. 2021 Jan;8(24):e14639. PMID: 33369272; PMCID: PMC7758977.

Cerit H, Davidson P, Hye T, Moondra P, Haimovici F, Sogg S, Shikora S, Goldstein JM, Evins AE, Whitfield-Gabrieli S, Stoeckel LE, Holsen LM. Resting state brain connectivity as a predictor of long-term weight loss and changes related to cognitive control of eating behavior following bariatric surgery. Obesity. 2019; 27:1846-55. PMCID:PMC6839788

Cerit H, Christensen KA, Moondra P, Klibanski A, Goldstein JM, Holsen LM. Divergent associations between ghrelin and neural responsivity to palatable food in hyperphagic and hypophagic recurrent depression. J Affect Disord. 2019; 242:29-38. PMCID:PMC6151278

Holsen LM, Davidson P, Cerit H, Hye T, Moondra P, Haimovici F, Sogg S, Shikora S, Goldstein JM, Evins AE, Stoeckel LE. Neural predictors of 12-month weight loss outcomes following bariatric surgery. Int J Obesity. 2018; 42:785-93. PMCID:PMC6319374

Holsen LM*, Lawson EA*, Christensen K, Klibanski A, Goldstein JM. Abnormal relationships between the neural response to high- and low-calorie foods and endogenous acylated ghrelin in women with active and weight-recovered anorexia nervosa. Psychiatry Res. 2014 Aug 30;223(2):94-103. PMCID:PMC4090258


Holsen LM, Lawson EA, Ko E, Blum J, Makris N, Fazeli, PK, Klibanksi A, Goldstein JM. Food motivation circuitry hypoactivation related to hedonic and non-hedonic aspects of hunger and satiety in women with active and weight-restored anorexia nervosa. J Psychiatry Neurosci. 2012 Sep; 37(5):322-32. PMCID:PMC3447131

Holsen LM, Savage CR, Martin LE, Bruce AS, Lepping RJ, Ko E, Brooks WM, Butler MG, Zarcone JR, Goldstein JM. Importance of reward and prefrontal circuitry in hunger and satiety: Prader-Willi syndrome vs. simple obesity. Int J Obes (Lond). 2012 May;36(5):638-47. PMCID:PMC3270121

Holsen LM, Spaeth SB, Lee J-H, Ogden LA, Klibanski A, Whitfield-Gabrieli S, Goldstein JM. Stress response circuitry hypoactivation related to hormonal dysfunction in women with major depression. J Affect Disord. 2011 Jun;131(1-3):379-87. PMCID:PMC3073153

Holsen LM, Dalton KM, Johnstone T, Davidson RJ. Prefrontal social cognition network dysfunction underlying face encoding and social anxiety in fragile X syndrome. Neuroimage. 2008 Nov 15;43(3):592-604. PMCID:PMC2598775

Holsen LM, Zarcone JR, Brooks WM, Butler MG, Thompson TI, Ahluwalia JS, Nollen NL, Savage CR. Neural mechanisms underlying hyperphagia in Prader-Willi syndrome. Obesity. 2006; 14:1028-37. (Prior to 4/7/08)

Holsen LM, Zarcone JR, Thompson TI, Brooks WM, Anderson M, Ahluwalia J, Nollen NL, Savage CR. Neural mechanisms underlying hunger in children and adolescents: An fMRI study. Neuroimage. 2005; 27:669-76. (Prior to 4/7/08)