Assistant Professor

Basic Sciences
Division of Physiology
Center for Health Disparities and 
Molecular Medicine,
School of Medicine
Loma Linda University
Loma Linda, CA 92350
U.S.A

Phone:  (909) 558-4000 Ext. 81302
Fax:  (909) 558-0177
E-mail: jfigueroa@llu.edu

Johnny Figueroa PhD

Research Interest

  • Neurobiological Mechanisms Linking Stress and Obesity
  • Healthy Lifestyle-Based Approaches to Increase Resilience to Childhood Trauma

Childhood trauma heightens the risk of severe weight gain and adult obesity. However, the pathways for the increased risk of obesity in individuals exposed to early-life trauma remain poorly understood. Preclinical findings from our laboratory support the notion that cortical structural alterations and behavioral impairments, including the presence of disordered eating behavior, may account for the added risk of adult obesity. A specific goal of our studies is to identify causal pathways connecting early-life trauma to aberrant eating behaviors later in life. Our strong preliminary data indicate that: 1) early-life trauma and exposure to an obesogenic diet results in marked structural impairments in the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), 2) early-life exposure to this obesogenic environment increases food intake and obesity-like phenotypes, and 3) these environmental conditions alter the levels and signaling of the growth factor neuregulin-1 (NRG1). Based on this strong preliminary data, we hypothesize that overactivation of NRG1 signaling in the prefrontal cortex contributes to the effects of early-life traumatic stress on dendritic spine loss, synaptic density, and aberrant cortical network maturation and feeding patterns, promoting rapid weight gain and obesogenic phenotypes during adulthood. 

A common thread among our studies is the use of clinically relevant PTSD models combined with animal behavior, electrophysiology, cell and molecular biology, confocal microscopy, neuroimaging, and nutrimetabolomics to define the relative contribution and mechanisms of dietary fatty acids towards neuronal plasticity and stress resilience.

From a translational perspective, we seek to rapidly advance our discoveries in the lab and clinic into effective functional foods, nutraceutical interventions, and healthy lifestyle practices that may improve the rehabilitation potential of affected patients.

Academically, our laboratory is focused on promoting diversity in the biomedical research workforce. The overarching goal is to enhance the development of talented neuroscientist from all population sectors and academic levels.

Our investigations contribute to enhancing our understanding of the underlying convergence neuropathology and molecular pathways linking early-life trauma to disordered feeding behaviors and obesity. Having a better understanding of these adaptations may contribute to the identification of new opportunities to prevent and treat the long-term impact of childhood adversities on physical and mental health outcomes.

Current Funded Projects

Intramural: GRASP
Extramural: NIH & NSF

Selected Publications

  1. Vega-Torres, J. D., Azadian, M., Rios-Orsini, R., Reyes-Rivera, A., Ontiveros-Angel, P., Figueroa, J. D. (2020) Early maturational emergence of adult-like emotional reactivity and anxiety after brief exposure to an obesogenic diet. Frontiers in Neuroscience. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2020.00562 

  2. Santiago Santana, J. M., Vega-Torres, J. D., Ontiveros-Angel P., Bin Lee, J., Arroyo Torres, Y., Cruz Gonzalez, A. Y., Aponte Boria, E., Zabala Ortiz, D., Alvarez Carmona, C., Figueroa, J. D. (2020) Oxidative Stress and Neuroinflammation in a Rat Model of Co-Morbid Obesity and Psychogenic Stress. bioRxiv. https://doi.org/10.1101/2020.05.19.104794 Under Review.

  3.  Mayagoitia K., Shin S. D., Rubini M., Siebold L., Wilson C. G., Bellinger D. L., Figueroa J. D., Soriano S. (2020) Short-term exposure to dietary cholesterol is associated with downregulation of interleukin-15, reduced thigmotaxis and memory impairment in mice. Behav Brain Res. 2020 Jun 22;393:112779. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.bbr.2020.112779. 

  4. Siebold, L., Krueger, A. C., Grubaugh, A., Figueroa, J. D., Bartnik-Olson, B., Holshouser, B., Wilson, C. G., Ashwal, S. (2020) Cosyntropin Attenuates Neuroinflammation in a Mouse Model of Traumatic Brain Injury. Frontiers in Neuroscience. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnmol.2020.00109 

  5. Vega-Torres, J. D., Kalyan-Masih, P., Argueta, D. A., DiPatrizio, N. A., Figueroa, J. D. (2019) Endocrine, metabolic, and endocannabinoid alterations in rats exhibiting high anxiety-related behaviors. Science Matters Select. https://doi.org/10.19185/matters.201906000003

  6. Tyner, E., Oropeza, M., Figueroa, J. D., dela Peña, I. C., (2019). Childhood Hypertension and Effects on Cognitive Functions: Mechanisms and Future Perspectives. CNS Neurol Disorders & Drug Treatments. 18, 677–686. http://doi.org/10.2174/1871527318666191017155442.

  7. Knox-Concepcion, K. R., Figueroa, J. D., Hartman, R. E., Li, Y., Zhang, L. (2019). Repression of the Glucocorticoid Receptor Increases Hypoxic-Ischemic Brain Injury in the Male Neonatal Rat. Int J Mol Sciences. 20, 3493. http://doi.org/10.3390/ijms20143493. 

  8. Vega-Torres, J. D., Haddad, E., Lee, J. B., Obenaus, A., Figueroa, J. D. (2018) Exposure to an obesogenic diet during adolescence leads to abnormal maturation of neural and behavioral substrates underpinning fear and anxiety. Brain Behavior and Immunity, 70, 96-117. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bbi.2018.01.011

  9. Cordero, K., Coronel, G. G., Serrano-Illán, M., Cruz-Bracero, J., Figueroa, J. D., De León, M. (2018) Effects of Dietary Vitamin E Supplementation in Bladder Function and Spasticity during Spinal Cord Injury. Brain Sci. (8) 38. https://doi.org/10.3390/brainsci8030038 

  10. Kalyan-Masih, P., Vega-Torres, J. D., Miles, C., Haddad, E., Rainsbury, S., Baghchechi, M., Obenaus, A., Figueroa, J. D. (2016) Western high-fat diet consumption during adolescence increases susceptibility to traumatic stress while selectively disrupting hippocampal and ventricular volumes. Society for Neuroscience eNeuro, October-November p. 1-24. http://dx.doi.org/10.1523/ENEURO.0125-16.2016

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