Projects


Active Projects

Infant Nutrition & Cognition Study

Currently recruiting (paused due to COVID-19)

Study Purpose: The purpose of this research study is to determine if eating eggs during breastfeeding will increase nutrients important for brain development in the milk and subsequently,  improve infant cognition.

What participants will do:  You and your child will come to the lab for three sessions across 3 months.  Mom will be asked to eat eggs (provided), keep a food diary, provide  milk and saliva samples, and fill out questionnaires about her infant’s development.  Baby will play age-appropriate games, participate in a memory activity, and provide a  saliva sample.

Recruiting: Healthy lactating women at 12-15 weeks postpartum

Compensation: You will receive a $75 Visa debit card at each visit as a token of our appreciation.

See if you qualify today! Call 704-250-5018, email feedingbrains@unc.edu, or click HERE to enter your contact information.

 

Development of a Cognitive Decline Risk Score: A BERRY Follow-up

Enrolling now, only past BERRY participants are eligible

The purpose of this follow-up to the BERRY study is to develop a way to predict, from markers in blood, who will have issues with cognitive decline in the future. Currently, there is no reliable way to predict who will go on to have cognitive issues with aging. Once developed, our risk score will allow for early interventions that may halt cognitive decline and/or greatly improve outcomes for high-risk people. We will be calling back everyone who completed the first session of the BERRY study. It does not matter if they didn’t finish the research study. We will use the data that we collected in the first session to predict cognitive abilities evidenced in this follow-up. The data will include scores in the BERRY study on cognitive tests, your genetics, and the levels of certain compounds in the blood sample given then. Based on cognitive scores from this follow-up, we will compile a risk score from those baseline data. We will then test this risk score in a large publicly available database.

If BERRY folks decide to participate in this study, they will be asked to complete a computerized test of cognition; a few written assessments of cognition, physical activity, and mood; an interview about your eating habits; and a blood draw. These are all assessments that were done in the BERRY study. Nothing new has been added.

SAWASDEE Project in Thailand (with Nancy Fiedler at Rutgers and Nancy Barr at Emory)

Recruiting only in Thailand

Prenatal exposures to neurotoxic insecticides are widespread throughout the world and have the potential to disrupt and permanently alter brain development. The major developmental task of infancy and early childhood is the regulation of attention, cognition, and emotion. Any problem with development in any one or all of these areas could have significant life-long consequences. Animal studies of toxic insecticides’ effects in the brain show that neuron growth is affected and the serotonin (feel good) system in general is disrupted in development. Although we know that insecticide exposures occur during pregnancy and that the fetal period is when the brain is its most vulnerable, there is really no scientific knowledge of the timing, dose, and duration of exposure that would lead to these developmental issues. This knowledge would inform regulatory decisions. The purpose of the current proposal is to support Thai researchers as they develop and maintain a birth cohort in Thailand. With this cohort, they will evaluate markers of insecticide exposure as well as cognitive and social outcomes related to brain development in the first two years of life (current funding) and beyond (potential follow on funding). This natural experiment will enable us to: 1) address how the timing, dose, and duration of insecticide exposures during critically vulnerable periods affect development, 2) determine the effects of insecticide exposure on infant and early childhood development of attention, emotion regulation, memory, and inhibitory control, and 3) increase the ability of Thai researchers to develop their own studies of pesticide-induced neurotoxicity.

 

NAPS Follow-up (with Cathi Propper, UNC-Chapel Hill in Chapel Hill)

Enrollment Complete

There are many challenges faced by African American (AA) families living in our heavily racialized society such that AA children experience disproportionate levels of poverty and economic loss and are at substantially higher risk than white children of experiencing poor cognitive outcomes. This increased risk may be the result of race-related stress and experience that begins as early as the prenatal period and has long lasting effects. With this study, we are focusing on prenatal nutrition, a critical experience during pregnancy that is highly influenced by sociodemographic status. We are examining variation in prenatal nutrition based on race-related stress as a predictor of cognitive functioning at age 4. In addition, infant sleep will be examined as a mediator of this association. Building on an existing study of African American families with previously collected prenatal measurement of nutrition and fatty acid status (See “Does a mother's diet during pregnancy affect how well her baby sleeps at six months of age?” in completed projects.), we are collecting new measurements of cognitive and executive functioning at age 4. Understanding the factors that lead to deleterious outcomes in children, beginning in utero, will lead to prevention and intervention efforts to improve trajectories for all children and help to reduce disparities later in life.  Findings from this study will provide preliminary data for a large-scale NIH R01 grant submission to more closely examine these links.

Completed Projects

Does a mother's diet during pregnancy affect how well her baby sleeps at six months of age?

We wanted to find out! Previous research has shown that the quality of babies’ sleep affects their cognitive abilities and behavior across a broad range of ages and outcomes (Bernier, Beauchamp, Bouvette-Turcot, Carlson, & Carrier, 2013; Bernier, Carlson, Bordeleau, & Carrier,2010;  El-Sheikh, Kelly, Buckhalt, & Benjamin Hinnant, 2010; Mindell, Leichman, DuMond, & Sadeh, 2017; Plancoulaine et al., 2017).

What predicts the quality of an infant’s sleep?  We hypothesized that higher amounts of fatty acids (specifically docosahexaenoic acid, DHA; arachidonic acid ARA; linolenic acid, LNA; and linoleic acid, LA) in maternal blood would predict higher quality sleep in infants at six months.  Our participants were 33 African-American women between the ages of 20 and 42.

Each participant completed a blood draw during her third trimester of pregnancy and reported everything she ate on three different days to our team of researchers. After birth, we paid two home visits to each mom and baby, when the infant was three and six months of age.  During the home visits, our team of researchers video-recorded mother-child interactions, and performed developmental assessments.  Each mom also completed a demographic questionnaire. At the beginning of each home visit, infants were fitted with a small monitor around his or her ankle that measured their limb movements for the week following the appointment.  Those data were used to help determine the quality of the infant’s sleep. In addition to these data, each mother reported her infant’s sleep patterns for those seven nights via phone calls with members of our research team.

Once all of the data were collected, we assayed the blood samples for levels of DHA, ARA, LNA, and LA, and contrasted those levels with the sleep patterns of each infant.  What did we find? Infants whose mothers’ blood had higher levels of LNA and LA during their third trimester slept longer during the night, woke up fewer times, and had a greater amount of their total sleep time occurring at night, three important markers for quality sleep. Notably, DHA and ARA did not prove to have any effects on these infant’s sleep patterns.

So why does this matter? DHA has gotten a lot of attention in recent years for being an essential nutrient for brain development in infants.  However, research on the effectiveness of taking DHA as a supplement has had mixed results, showing it is important to understand how other fatty acids play a complementary role in early life development.  Considering how crucial sleep is to developmental outcomes it is imperative that we know more about the various factors affecting quality of sleep in infancy.   This knowledge can then be used to help create interventions and recommendations that will improve sleep for all babies and lessen the disparities we see in infant development today.  Thank you for our collaborators in this project at UNC-Chapel Hill, Marie Camerota, Cathi Propper, and Kristin Tully.

Bernier, A., Beauchamp, M. H., Bouvette-Turcot, A. A., Carlson, S. M., & Carrier, J. (2013). Sleep and cognition in preschool years: Specific links to executive functioning. Child Development, 84(5), 1542–1553. https://doi.org/10.1111/cdev.12063
Bernier, A., Carlson, S. M., Bordeleau, S., & Carrier, J. (2010). Relations between physiological and cognitive regulatory systems: Infant sleep regulation and subsequent executive functioning. Child Development, 81(6), 1739–1752. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467- 8624.2010.01507.x
El-Sheikh, M., Kelly, R. J., Buckhalt, J. A., & Benjamin Hinnant, J. (2010). Children’s sleep and adjustment over time: The role of socioeconomic context. Child Development, 81(3), 870– 883. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8624.2010.01439.x
Mindell, J. A., Leichman, E. S., DuMond, C., & Sadeh, A. (2017). Sleep and Social-Emotional Development in Infants and Toddlers. Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, 46(2), 236–246. https://doi.org/10.1080/15374416.2016.1188701
Plancoulaine, S., Stagnara, C., Flori, S., Bat-Pitault, F., Lin, J.-S., Patural, H., & Franco, P. (2017). Early features associated with the neurocognitive development at 36 months of age: the AuBE study. Sleep Medicine, 30, 222–228. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.sleep.2016.10.015

Memory Game Pilot Study for 12- and 24-month-olds

Completed

The purpose of this research study was to test some newly-designed toys which will be used in future studies to learn about brain development in children.  We successfully recruited ten 12-month olds and ten 24-month olds who came to the lab for one session that lasted about an hour.  During this time, we played a memory game with the child and asked parents fill out a few questionnaires about her child's language development and temperament.  For the memory game, each child was asked to watch and imitate short action sequences that the researcher demonstrated.  We assessed each child's ability to imitate and recall these sequences immediately and after a 10- or 20-minute delay.

With this pilot study, we wanted to determine the feasibility and durability of the toys when used with young children.  We discovered that the children were interested and engaged with the toys, and found that some of the designs needed to be tweaked in order to withstand the banging or throwing that comes naturally to kids this age.  We are in the process of analyzing the data to determine if the toys were successful at assessing short- and long-term memory in 12- and 24-month-olds.

Thank you to all the children and parents who participated in this pilot study.  We appreciate each and every one of you!

 

Can eating blueberries prevent, slow down or even reverse memory loss?

Part 2: Enrollment completed, data analysis in progress

  • In order to gain more information about the progression from Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI) to dementia researchers in the Cheatham lab designed a study to follow up on our B.E.R.R.Y. participants.  These participants will be coming back into the lab for one visit where they will participate in some of the same assessments they completed during Part 1 of the study.  Electrophysiological techniques and the CANTAB have shown promise in the diagnosis and prediction of MCI. We will compare the new data to the data collected one, two, or three years ago. In June, we began bringing our BERRY participants back in to the lab for this exciting follow-up.

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Can eating blueberries prevent, slow down or even reverse memory loss?

Part 1: Completed

  • That is something that we are trying to figure out. Currently one in eight Americans age 65 and older suffer from Alzheimer’s disease, and there is no cure for this disease. In 2011, Dr. Cheatham and her post-doctoral fellow, Dr. Sheau Ching Chai, began a study to explore the effects of daily blueberry intake in older adults.  In this study titled “Blueberries: Exciting Research Relevant to You (B.E.R.R.Y.)”, we enrolled 65-to 79-year-olds with mild cognitive decline.

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Is the omega-6 to omega-3 ratio related to executive function in 7- to 12-year olds?

  • We have a cool new task: the Electric Maze. Some of you had the chance to try out the maze in a recent study. I hope everyone had fun. We have now looked at the data. As it turns out, the Electric Maze Task (EMT) works very well as a measure of planning, which is exactly what we were trying to do. So, yay!

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Do genetics affect human milk and babies' memory?

  • Part 1 The results of the infant study are in! For those who don’t know, we have spent the last couple years working with moms and babies who were exclusively breastfeeding. The moms provided milk samples that we analyzed for fatty acid content. We also determined, from saliva, mom’s and baby’s genotype at a specific location on one of the genes responsible for using one fatty acid to make another – basically taking the fatty acids found in plants (e.g., ALA) and using them to make the fatty acids found in animals (e.g., DHA). People with a GG genotype are thought to not be able to complete this process. Thus, the hypothesis was that the few individuals who were GG would need to eat foods with plenty of DHA, whereas others could eat the plant foods and still have sufficient DHA. As a consequence, we thought that the baby of a GG mom may not be get-ting enough DHA and that we could maybe see this reflected in recognition memory abilities. So, the babies participated in an electrophysiology task in which they viewed a picture with which they were familiar mixed in with pictures that they were seeing for the first time.

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Does the ratio between omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids matter?

  • First, a refresher: in the 7-9 year old study, we were looking at whether or not children’s diets affected their performance on a series of computer tests of memory, attention, and planning. We asked all the kids about their diet for three days, and then brought them in to play the computer games. I had a great time with that part! We were particularly looking for the types of fats that the kids consumed (like omega-3 or omega-6 fatty acids), and whether or not that mattered for how they did on the computer tasks.  We found that kids who had a lower ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids were faster at completing the working memory tasks than kids with a higher ratio.  We also found that kids who had a lower ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids were faster at completing planning tasks than kids with a higher ratio.

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