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Mead Johnson awards $1m to further study of piglet brain development

Mead Johnson Nutrition has awarded the University of Illinois' Department of Animal Sciences a grant of nearly $1m to further its understanding of how nutrition affects brain development in piglets.

The $945,000 (€694,000) grant, awarded to the Department of Animal Sciences’ assistant professor of nutrition, Ryan Dilger, will “increase the capability for research regarding learning and memory in young pigs with the goal of understanding how nutrition affects brain development in human infants," the faculty said in a statement.

Illinois-based Mead Johnson Nutrition, which manufactures Enfamil brand infant formula, chose to award funding to the Department of Animal Sciences because of its “unique combination of state-of-the-art neuroscience technology and long-standing history of dedication to pediatric nutrition research.”

For several years, young pigs have been used by Dilger and his University of Illinois colleagues as biomedical research subjects to study human brain development.

The Department of Animal Sciences currently has space to raise and monitor 24 pigs at a time. The grant will be used to double this figure and provide Dilger and his team “greater control over nutrient delivery and video monitoring of piglet behaviour.”

“Basically, this gift is to develop new research infrastructure and increase our capabilities in testing how much nutrition affects brain development,” said Dilger.

“In the past, we have looked at such things as iron deficiency and its effects on learning and memory, and this gift will allow us to develop next-generation tools to test how early life nutrition relates to brain function in an animal model that closely approximates developmental processes in humans,” he added.

"Spearhead project"

The “spearhead project” in the new Mead Johnson-funded unit will test learning and memory through eye-blink conditioning studies during which piglets will learn to associate a noise with a gentle puff of air blown into their eyes. 

This, the University claims, will allow researchers to determine how dietary and environmental factors affect learning and memory.

“Here we ask, what is the optimal behavioural performance, in this case learning and memory, and is that function amenable to nutritional intervention? Then we can use cellular and molecular techniques to determine exactly how the relationship between nutrition and brain function works," Dilger continued.

“Nutrition has come a long way. We’ve basically identified all the nutrients and what happens in growth and metabolism if we have a deficiency. However, we understand less about whether improper nutrition causes long-term effects on the brain, and this is a serious problem globally as far as the effects micronutrient deficiencies have on short-term and long-term memory. Thus, we’re interested in studying nutrition during the late prenatal and early postnatal periods, and what effects this has on long-term cognitive development.”

The University of Illinois expects the new Mead Johnson-funded unit to be up and running in early 2015.

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