Elinor L Sullivan

Dr. Sullivan specializes in behavioral neuroscience with specific training and expertise in nonhuman primate behavior. A primary focus of the Sullivan laboratory is examining the influence of the metabolic and dietary environment on behavioral regulation with an emphasis on behaviors that relate to human mental health and behavioral disorders including anxiety, depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and autism spectrum disorders. Furthermore, Dr. Sullivan has expertise in whole animal physiology and measurement of energy balance regulation, feeding behavior and food preference. One specific focus is the impact that exposure to maternal obesity and high fat diet consumption during the perinatal period has on the behavior and physiology of the developing offspring.

Key findings of this research to date include an increased risk for anxiety in female offspring and deficits in social behavior in both male and female offspring exposed to maternal high fat diet consumption and obesity. Dr. Sullivan has demonstrated that a suppression of the central serotonin system in offspring exposed to maternal obesity and high fat diet consumption, may underlie the behavioral dysregulation observed in the high fat diet offspring. The working hypothesis is that maternal high fat diet consumption and obesity result in the developing offspring being exposed to increased levels of circulating inflammatory cytokines. This leads to neural inflammation in the fetus, which modulates the development of neural circuitry important in regulating physiology and behavior such as the serotonergic, melanocortinergic, and dopaminergic systems. As the majority of women of childbearing age consume a high fat diet and one third of pregnant women are obese, these studies are fundamental to understanding and identifying behavioral disorders that result from exposure to maternal obesity and HFD consumption.

In order to directly translate her findings in the nonhuman primate model, Dr. Sullivan has initiated a translational study to examine the impact of maternal diet on infant temperament in humans. In collaboration with Dr. Joel Nigg from Oregon Health & Science University, the Sullivan laboratory examines the temperament of infant children from parents diagnosed with ADHD. The relationship between the behavioral data and information on maternal diet during pregnancy, cord blood, and placenta are being examined. Together these studies will further our understanding of how maternal energy status and pre- and early- postnatal nutrition influence susceptibility to obesity and behavioral disorders such as anxiety, depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and autism spectrum disorders.  Dr. Sullivan’s research has been recognized through invited presentations at national and international meetings, serving as a reviewer for a number of scientific publications, and being invited to participate in National Institute of Health grant review.


Dr. Sullivan has been working with nonhuman primates at the ONPRC since 2002. First, she was a graduate student with Dr. Judy Cameron, examining factors that contribute to individual differences in body weight gain in female nonhuman primates, and then a postdoctoral fellow and Staff Scientist under Dr. Kevin Grove’s mentorship. Dr. Sullivan became an Assistant Professor at the University of Portland and an Adjunct Assistant Scientist at ONPRC in 2011. She is one of the founding faculty members of the new ONPRC Division of Diabetes, Obesity, & Metabolism. Dr. Sullivan is currently an Assistant (Core) Professor in the Divisions of Neuroscience and Diabetes, Obesity & Metabolism. Dr. Sullivan is actively involved in training future scientists through her teaching and mentoring of University of Portland undergraduate students. Since 2011, Dr. Sullivan has mentored 25 students and two postdoctoral fellows. In addition, she participates in teaching graduate level courses, judging student research presentations at OHSU Research Week, and serving on thesis committees.


Rivera HM, Kievit P, Kirigiti MA, Bauman LA, Baquero K, Blundell P, Dean TA, Valleau JC, Douville L, Majer J, Smith MS, Grove KL, Sullivan EL. Maternal high-fat diet and obesity impact palatable food intake and dopamine signaling in nonhuman primate offspring. Obesity (Silver Spring), 2015 Nov; 23(11):2157-64. doi: 10.1002/oby.21306. PMCID: PMC4636015

Sullivan EL, Holton KF, Nousen EK, Barling AN, Sullivan CA, Propper CB, Nigg JT. Early identification of ADHD risk via infant temperament and emotion regulation: a pilot study. Journal of Child Psychology Psychiatry. 2015 Sep;56(9):949-57. doi: 10.1111/jcpp. 12426. Epub 2015 May 12. PMID:25968589

Sullivan EL, Riper KM, Lockard R, Valleau JC. Maternal high fat diet programming of the neuroendocrine system and behavior. Horm Behav. 2015 Apr 24. pii: S0018-506X(15)00058-6. doi: PMID: 25913366

Sullivan EL, Grayson B, Takahashi D, Bethea C, Smith MS, Coleman K, Grove KL (2010).  Chronic Consumption of a High Fat Diet During Pregnancy Causes Perturbations in Serotonergic System and Increased Anxiety-like Behavior in Nonhuman Primate Offspring. The Journal of Neuroscience, Mar 10;30(10):3826-30. PMCID: PMC2846411.  


See a full listing of Dr. Sullivan's publications.