Sandra M. Mooney, PhD


Sandra Mooney, PhD joined the UNC Chapel Hill Nutrition Research Institute in August 2018 as an Associate Professor of Nutrition. Her research program investigates the effect(s) of environment and genes on brain development, with a focus on prenatal alcohol exposure. Current studies use animal models to understand how nutritional needs change after alcohol exposure, thereby increasing the chances that modifying (or personalizing) nutrition will optimize growth and development. This work is supported by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). Dr. Mooney received her Ph.D. from the University of Otago in New Zealand.

The overall theme of Dr Mooney’s research is to understand normal brain development, how exposure to alcohol (and other drugs or experiences) disrupts this, what the behavioral outcomes are, and whether simple nutrition-based interventions can improve outcomes. Developmental exposure to ethanol profoundly affects development of the nervous system. Indeed, fetal alcohol exposure is described as the primary known cause of mental retardation, and recent estimates suggest that 2-5% of US children can be diagnosed with a Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder.

Dr Mooney’s work has contributed to understanding that alcohol alters cell proliferation, migration, and death; all of which are critical for brain development. She has also examined the role of growth factors in these processes and shown that their expression and/or activity is altered by developmental exposure to alcohol. Ongoing work describes behavioral outcomes after acute or chronic exposure to alcohol. The acute alcohol exposure model allows understanding of how changes in anatomy, protein expression, and gene and microRNA expression in the brain align with behavioral changes. Dr Mooney was the first to show that the timing of the alcohol exposure defines the social behavior deficit, and that outcomes were sex- and age-dependent. These findings help to explain the spectrum of outcomes seen in the human population.

The lab also explores potential rescue therapy to ameliorate the effects of alcohol. Importantly, the focus is on therapies that are used after birth and could be translated into treatments for humans with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders. New studies in the design or early stages investigate the gut microbiome and structure of the gastrointestinal tract and liver.