UNC launches new study to uncover nutritional impacts on early brain development

Researchers are using state-of-the-art imaging techniques and collecting data on dietary nutrient intake, feeding practices, and gut microbiota abundance and diversity to elucidate the links between nutrition, the microbiome, and brain maturation processes in early childhood.

UNC launches new study to uncover nutritional impacts on early brain development click to enlarge Weili Lin, PhD
UNC launches new study to uncover nutritional impacts on early brain development click to enlarge Jed T. Elison, PhD

September 19, 2017

Scientists at the University of North Carolina (UNC) School of Medicine and the University of Minnesota (UMN) embarked on the Baby Connectome Project (BCP), a groundbreaking NIH study launched in 2016 designed to quantitatively map human brain connectivity from birth through early childhood. Now, researchers are going one step further with the “BCP-Enriched” initiative, a four-year research project funded through Wyeth Nutrition to substantially expand the scope of the original study. By leveraging data collected during the BCP -- including state-of-the-art brain imaging data -- combined with additional data on diet and other factors, researchers will explore in unprecedented detail the connections between nutrition and brain development processes in children ages 0-3 years, a critical period of early brain development.

“The BCP-Enriched study is perhaps one of the most comprehensive endeavors to not only uncover nutritional impacts on early brain development, but also delve into the relationship between a wide array of biological mechanisms that interact with nutrition, e.g., the gut-brain axis," said Weili Lin, PhD, Dixie Soo Distinguished Professor in Neurological Medicine at the UNC School of Medicine, Director of the UNC Biomedical Research Imaging Center (BRIC), professor and vice chair of Basic Research, Radiology, principal investigator of the BCP-Enriched study and contact principal investigator of the BCP. "In addition, the utilization of state-of-the-art magnetic resonance imaging technologies will reveal, for the first time, the underlying neural basis of dietary nutrients on early brain development.” 

The overarching goal of the BCP-Enriched study is to assess the potential interplay among dietary nutrients, feeding practices, gut microbiota, structural and functional brain development, and cognitive and behavioral outcomes (including sleep quality) between 0-36 months. The first three years of life are widely recognized as a critically important window for brain development, where environmental factors like nutrition potentially play key roles in the developmental processes. In the initial phase of the BCP-Enriched study, the researchers will focus on analyzing neuroimaging, behavioral, cognitive, fecal microbiota, and nutrient intake data to establish developmental trajectories/changes over time for each of these parameters.

Results from the first phase will then be used to closely evaluate how nutrient intake, feeding practices, and other environmental factors influence early brain development and cognitive and behavioral outcomes. In addition, the BCP-Enriched study will explore whether gut microbiota composition and diversity affects neurodevelopment during this critical time period, and examine the degree to which the gut microbiota may serve as a mediating factor for the effects of nutrition on brain development via a gut-brain axis.

Notably, the state-of-the-art brain imaging techniques being used in the study were recently optimized for use with infants and are expected to shed new light on brain development processes. With these new techniques optimized, the BCP-Enriched study is uniquely positioned to learn new insights into nutritional effects on early brain development and potentially provide enhanced nutritional guidance for infants and toddlers.

“At Wyeth Nutrition, we believe firmly in the potential for innovative discovery research to find new pathways that can support healthy futures for all children,” said Head of Research Laurent B. Fay. “As such, we are proud to support the BCP-Enriched initiative as an extension of the Baby Connectome Project. We are confident that the research will contribute new information about the myriad ways that nutrition supports brain development during the first years of life, which represent an early critical window whereby factors beneficially affecting brain development may lead to life-long positive effects on brain function.”

John Cheung, CEO of Wyeth Nutrition, added, “The BCP-Enriched study has tremendous potential for providing new insights that have applications in real-life and may ultimately yield novel nutrition solutions that foster the optimal health and development of all children.”

A multidisciplinary team of researchers from UNC and UMN is participating in the BCP-Enriched study. Researchers from UNC include Weili Lin, PhD (PI); Dinggang Shen, PhD; Kyle Burger, PhD; Margaret Sheridan, PhD; Rebecca Knickmeyer, PhD; and Hongtu Zhu, PhD. Researchers from UMN include Jed Elison, PhD; Robert Knight, Ph.D. and Brittany Howell, PhD.

Watch a story by UNC-TV about the Baby Connectome Project: http://science.unctv.org/content/video/infant-imaging

UNC media contact: Tom Hughes, 984-974-1151, Tom.Hughes@unchealth.unc.edu
UMN media contact: Steven Baker, 612-624-3430, s-bake@umn.edu

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