Heather Ferris, MD, PhD


Assistant Professor of Medicine, Department of Medicine

Clinical Investigator in Residence, Department of Neuroscience

Health System Profile



Heather Ferris, MD, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Medicine
Division of Endocrinology and Metabolism
PO Box 801406
Charlottesville, VA 22908
Lab location: MR4, Room 6022
Lab phone: 434-924-5473
Email: hf4f@virginia.edu


  • 1998 B.A., Chemistry, B.S., Biochemistry, College of Charleston
  • 2005 Ph.D., Molecular Physiology and Biological Physics, University of Virginia
  • 2006 M.D., University of Virginia
  • 2009 Residency, University of Pittsburgh Medical Center
  • 2012 Endocrinology Fellowship, Beth Israel Deaconess/Joslin Diabetes Center
  • 2012-2017 Instructor, Harvard Medical School, Research Associate, Joslin Diabetes Center
  • Ferris Clinical Practice


People with Type 2 diabetes are at increased risk for cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s. Our research uses cell and animal models to study the impact of diabetes on the brain. In particular, we are interested in:

1. How insulin regulates cholesterol synthesis in the different cell types of the brain and how this impacts brain energetics and function.

2. The potential role of oxidized cholesterol species as signaling molecules in the brain in diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease.

3. Understanding the role of insulin in the pathogenesis of Alzheimer’s disease.

 Cholesterol metabolism in the brain is unique from the periphery. Cholesterol cannot Molecular Metabolism Book Covercross the blood-brain barrier, so the brain produces its own supply. In addition, the blood-brain barrier regulates insulin access to the brain. Insulin receptor activation contributes to the synthesis of brain cholesterol. In the diabetic mouse, cholesterol synthesis is impaired, which is mediated by insulin deficiency. We have followed up on these studies, knocking out the key transcriptional regulator of cholesterol, SREBP2, in the main cholesterol synthesizing cells of the brain, the astrocytes.

We find that loss of cholesterol synthesis by astrocytes leads to an increase in brain glucose metabolism, resulting in altered whole body metabolism in the animals. In addition, alterations in brain lipid oxidation result in circadian rhythm disruptions. We are investigating the underlying mechanisms of these circadian rhythm disruptions and exploring altered cholesterol synthesis in other brain cells.

 There are currently clinical trials using intranasal insulin to attempt to modify Alzheimer’s disease progression. The mechanisms that may be driving these changes are currently unclear. We are interested in better defining the targets of intranasal insulin with the thought that there may be more efficient or specific ways to activate the desired pathways for improved clinical outcomes.


September 2021, US News and World Report, “Could Cholesterol Help Drive Alzheimer’s Disease?”

September 2021, NBC12 News, “UVA Research Shows Cholesterol Key Driver of Development of Alzheimer’s Disease”

January 2020, The Washington Post, “Five Myths About Diabetes” 

January 2019, BBC, “Is Juicing Actually Good For You?”

June 2018, Virginia Center on Aging, “Dr. Ferris is a Sullivan Alzheimer’s and Related Diseases Research Award Fund Recipient”

May 2017, “Audio: Dr. Heather Ferris About Why You Should Step Away From the Juice Bar”

Lab Members