Carol L. Cheatham, Ph.D.

Dr. Cheatham is a developmental cognitive neuroscientist and a member of the Nutrition & Brain Development Team at the University of North Carolina.

Dr. Cheatham is a developmental cognitive neuroscientist and a member of the Nutrition & Brain Development Team at the University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill Nutrition Research Institute (NRI) on the North Carolina Research Campus. At the NRI, Dr. Cheatham is studying the effects of nutrients (e.g., fatty acids, choline, iron, zinc) on the development and functioning of the hippocampus and frontal lobes, brain structures that are integral to the formation and retrieval of memories and to higher-order cognition. She uses both behavioral assessments and an electrophysiological technique known as event-related potentials in her work with children age 3 months to 6 years.

Dr. Cheatham earned her Ph.D. in Child Psychology with an emphasis in Neuroscience in September 2004 at the Institute of Child Development, University of Minnesota – Twin Cities (rated number one in the nation by US News & World Report) with Patricia Bauer and Megan Gunnar, both internationally renowned in their field. During her tenure at the Institute, she studied the development of memory and attention with Dr. Bauer, while simultaneously studying the effects of stress and social support on memory development with Dr. Gunnar.

She first became interested in the interplay between nutrition and brain development during her work with the chair of her dissertation committee, Dr. Michael Georgieff, a leading neonatologist who studies the effects of iron intake on brain development. Even though her dissertation did not have a nutrition component, the mentoring she received from Dr. Georgieff was invaluable for the understanding of the effects of nutrition on the brain. In addition, she began to appreciate the value of interdisciplinary ventures and came away with a desire to seek collaborative opportunities that cross traditional lines. Dr. Cheatham views interdisciplinary work as a pathway to a cohesive picture of child development.

She subsequently accepted a position on an interdisciplinary project at the University of Kansas Medical Center (KUMC) exploring the effects of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), a dietary fatty acid, on cognitive development. In collaboration with Susan Carlson (Professor of Dietetics and Nutrition), Dr. Cheatham conducted research on the effects of fatty acids on the development of declarative memory in two randomized clinical trials (RCT): one in which the infants were supplemented with DHA in formula and one in which the mothers were supplemented with DHA during pregnancy. Results from RCTs exploring DHA’s effects have been mixed: fewer than 50% of trials have found an effect on cognitive abilities. Given that fatty acids are present in high levels in the hippocampus and the frontal lobes, most notably at the synapses and in the dopamine system (for review see Cheatham, Colombo, & Carlson, 2006), it should have a measureable effect on memory. The results from the KUMC studies were suggestive of a confounded effect.

Dr. Cheatham hypothesizes that DHA’s effects on the ability of the brain to process information or even the ability of the brain to utilize DHA when it is present may be differentially affected by background diet (e.g., the total fat composition of the diet) and the organism’s history (e.g., expression of genes). She is currently assessing the effects of omega-3 fatty acids on declarative memory using behavioral and electrophysiological (event-related potential) paradigms. Important to her work at the Nutrition Research Institute is the ability to classify participants by single nucleotide polymorphisms (snp) in genes that are involved in the fatty acid metabolism process and are possibly introducing a confound into the data.