“Cognitive health is a focus area because we know every parent wants the best possible future for their infants and children, and all of us hope to preserve our memories and independence as we age,” explained Matthew Kuchan, PhD, Senior Principal Research Scientist with Abbott.
“The infant brain doubles in size during the first year of life and this is accompanied by an astounding increase in cell-cell connections (synapses). Much of what encourages this development is derived from an infant’s diet. In the elderly, the decline in brain size is gradual, but still involves the loss of a staggering number of synapses. Therefore, we know nutrition plays a large role at both ends of the spectrum.”
Central to Abbott’s cognitive health research is its partnership with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) called The Center for Nutrition, Learning, and Memory (CNLM). This began in late 2011 and has funded over 40 projects over the 4 years of the partnership.
“Through scientific discovery and targeted research, the CNLM drives the understanding of nutrition’s impact on brain cognition,” said Dr Kuchan. “The Center is the first interdisciplinary cognition and nutrition research center in the country.”
Key nutrients and bioactives
Many of the CNLM’s projects focus on infants (both premature and term), children and the elderly.
“We know that the brain’s biggest changes occur during infancy, early childhood and later in life, so we believe these are the periods when nutrition can have the most impact,” said Dr Kuchan.
The partnership has yielded numerous scientific publications with nutrients and bioactives of particular interest including DHA, lutein, EGCG, beta-alanine, flavonoids, and alpha-tocopherol (vitamin E).
“Emerging research shows that these compounds may impact brain development, and help maintain cognitive function, or in some cases, both,” explained Dr Kuchan.
‘Bringing formula closer to breast milk’
One project with Harvard/Brigham & Women’s Hospital is seeking to identify any variations in brain development between breastfed and formula-fed infants, and then relate these variations to nutrients in breast milk. Measurements include brain development images, such as structural MRI, Diffusion Tensor Imaging (degree of myelination and brain connectivity), and MRSI (Magnetic Resonance Spectrometry Imaging) for neurotransmitters and brain metabolites, he said. The researchers are also measuring the absorption of nutrients from breast milk and infant formula.
So is the goal of all this to better develop formula? “Abbott is continuously working to bring formula closer to the gold standard, breast milk,” said Dr Kuchan. “We aim to improve infant formula by supplementing it with nutrients that would balance brain development variations between breast fed and formula fed infants.”
One of the more intriguing projects currently underway involves US Air Force Airmen, which aims to understand the impact of a combination of exercise and a nutritional supplement on Airmen’s physical and cognitive performance.
“Specifically, this research will evaluate if an innovative, proprietary lutein-based supplement developed to enhance cognitive function and muscle recovery can accelerate the positive relationship between improved physical fitness and cognitive function,” he said. “Results may encourage further development of the nutritional supplement that, when combined with exercise, may improve troop readiness and can be easily implemented into existing Air Force training and maintenance programs.”
The company has developed an ‘all-in-one’ liquid nutritional supplement to promote cognitive function and improve muscle recovery for the Airmen, which contains macro- and micro-nutrients, in addition to omega- 3 fatty acids, carotenoids, and amino acids, said Dr Kuchan.
“This supplement was developed to meet the performance needs of Airmen, many of whom require high levels of cognitive and physical performance for their jobs, which include field medic, pilot, combat controller, flight line mechanic, and so on,” he said.
“A primary goal of the current research is to test and validate the effectiveness of this supplement for enhancing cognitive function and physical performance in its target population.”
Will the supplement be commercially available? “It’s a work in progress,” says Abbott. “There’s a long way to go.”