The NRI studies why metabolism and nutrient requirements differ from person to person. As scientists, physicians, and healthcare practitioners better understand nutritional individuality, they will be able to enhance human health, improve brain development, and more effectively treat diseases like obesity and cancer.
Nutrition and Cancer
At least one-third of annual cancer deaths in the U.S. are due to dietary factors. Excess body fat affects 40 percent of all cancers diagnosed in the US. NRI scientists seek to understand how obesity increases cancer risk and worsens response to treatment. NRI researchers are also exploring the role of folate and other active compounds in food, and how they contribute to health disparities.
Nutrition and Brain
NRI scientists are exploring how nutrients can improve brain function in people of all ages. They are studying how a mother’s diet while pregnant may change the way genes are expressed in the child, having a tremendous impact on his or her health. And because fetal alcohol exposure plays a significant role in how brains grow and develop and in subsequent behavior, there is a concentration of study in this area.
Nutrition and Microbiome
The complex community of bacteria, yeasts and viruses living in our intestines, collectively known as the gut microbiome, is shaped, in part, by what we eat. In turn, nutrients are often metabolized by the microbiome prior to absorption so it also affects nutrient intake and requirements. Current research investigates these relationships between diet, disease risk, and microbiome.
Nutrition and Exposome
Environmental factors in health can accumulate over a lifetime, but they are also highly modifiable, especially in terms of diet. Important research is now being conducted on this concept of the “exposome,” as an environmental complement to the human genome. Researchers are learning how diet and other environmental exposures interact with disease and affect responses to treatment.
- Early-Life Predictors of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders
- Nerve growth factor neuroprotection of ethanol-induced neuronal death in rat cerebral cortex is age dependent.
- Prenatal exposure to ethanol affects postnatal neurogenesis in thalamus
- Effects of acute prenatal exposure to ethanol on microRNA expression are ameliorated by social enrichment
Nutrigenomics is the study of how nutrition changes how our genes work and how genes change our nutrient requirements.
Diet can modify the switches built into DNA that turn genes on and off. Our research shows how diet during pregnancy can work in this way to change how brain develops.
Genes can also change our nutrient requirements. More than 500,000 gene variations exist that we can inherit from our ancestors. Each of us has, perhaps, 50,000 of them, and some are variations in genes for metabolism. Our research shows how this can predict whether we need more or less of certain important vitamins and nutrients.
The simultaneous measurement of thousands of chemicals in blood or urine that more completely describe our metabolism. Read More.
The new UNC-Chapel Hill Nutrition Research Institute (NRI) focuses on using cutting-edge genomic and metabolomic biotechnology to develop innovative approaches to understanding why we are individually different in our metabolism and nutrition needs.
In nutrition we develop diet recommendations by assuming people are average. Some people need more or less of a nutrient optimally, but as a group we are distributed along a bell-shaped curve that describes requirements. Using the average need, we can use math to estimate the spread of needs and say that everyone is protected if we feed an amount of nutrient that covers this spread.
What happens if we are wrong and, though the average requirement is the same, there are genetic or other reasons that subgroups of people are very different in their requirements? Our recommendation would miss the mark for a large number of people. Perhaps this is why nutrition studies so often report conflicting results.
We can identify these different subgroups using modern science – nutrigenomics and metabolomics!