Researchers are studying whether improper nutrition causes long-term effects on late prenatal and early postnatal brain development in human infants. Specific regions of the piglet brain develop almost exactly like the human infant brain. Because of this similarity, researchers at the University of Illinois (U of I) will be conducting an extensive research study to help improve nutrition options for very young children.

A substantial gift for a new biomedical swine research unit at the University of Illinois will increase capability for research regarding learning and memory in young pigs with the goal of understanding how nutrition affects brain development in human infants.

Mead Johnson Nutrition, maker of Enfamil® infant formula, awarded the $945,000 gift to Ryan Dilger, a U of I assistant professor of nutrition in the Department of Animal Sciences, to fund the new facility.

“The University of Illinois was chosen because of its truly unique combination of state-of-the-art neuroscience technology and long-standing history of dedication to pediatric nutrition research that includes the use of translational agrimedical research models,” said Brian Berg, a research scientist at Mead Johnson. 

Dilger said the new unit, set to be in place in early 2015, will enhance the ability of researchers to make new discoveries in cognitive development by using behavior to measure brain function.

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

In coordination with other U of I researchers, including Sharon Donovan and Rod Johnson, Dilger has used animal models for studying human brain development in his research over the last several years. “Sharon, Rod, and I use the young pig as a biomedical research subject, with a major research focus on pediatric nutrition, immunology, and brain development. It took several years to develop the piglet model into its current state, and now we are taking it to the next level,” he said.

Current facilities have allowed Dilger and his lab to raise and monitor 24 pigs at a time from birth. The new, high through-put facility will provide the space and technology to work with 48 pigs at a time, with greater control over nutrient delivery and video monitoring of piglet behavior. An automated liquid feeding system, continuous video monitoring, and specialized testing and observation spaces, will allow the unit to run more efficiently.

The spearhead project in the new unit will test learning and memory through eye-blink conditioning studies. Young pigs will learn to associate a noise with a gentle puff of air blown into their eyes (much like the glaucoma test performed on humans at the eye doctor). Tests like these allow researchers to determine how dietary or environmental factors affect learning and memory. “Behavior remains as the most functional outcome for how the brain is working, just as with nutrition, we use growth as a global indicator of adequate nutrient supply,” he said.

Dilger explained that as young animals and humans consume a complete and nutritious diet, they grow well. “Here we ask, what is the optimal behavioral 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,” he said.

In an identical manner to human infants, specific regions of the piglet brain will mature over time and produce functional readouts measured in the behavioral task. Therefore, pigs will be able to acquire the task, learning when they hear the tone to close their eyes, Dilger said.

“We are quantifying how nutrients and bioactive components found in breast milk impact cognitive development, and whether similar effects can be achieved if these components are included in infant formula. The infant formula industry’s primary goal is to advance optimal infant nutrition. Thus, there is primary interest in aligning the nutrient profiles of breast milk and infant formula to help infants receive the best start in life,” he added.

“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,” he said.

For more information on research from Dilger’s lab, visit http://ansci.illinois.edu/labs/comparative-animal-nutrition.