Arkansas Children’s Nutrition Center: Using Research Findings to Improve Children’s Development

Katrina Dupins

What a pregnant woman eats can affect the development of her child before and after he or she is born with consequences that may extend even into adulthood.

Researchers at the Arkansas Children’s Nutrition Center are finding that proper nutrition maintains health through more complicated ways than previously imagined. Scientists at the center are looking at how nutrition interacts with a person’s health from the beginning stages of life through preadolescence using measures to characterize these relationships that span the molecular to the behavioral.

The Arkansas Children’s Nutrition Center is one of only two USDA children’s nutrition centers in the country, and the only one relating nutrition, cognition and brain function in developing children. Since its 1994 establishment under founding director Thomas Badger, Ph.D., the center has become a global leader among nutrition research programs.

Supported through a partnership between UAMS, the USDA-Agricultural Research Service, and Arkansas Children’s Hospital Research Institute, the center’s goal is to use research findings to improve children’s development as well as reduce the risk of disease.

Leading that effort is Sean Adams, Ph.D., who was named center director in July 2014. Adams is professor and chief of the Developmental Nutrition Section in the Department of Pediatrics in the UAMS College of Medicine.

“Nutrition and physical activity in adulthood are very important, of course,” Adams said. “But to think that we could influence someone’s life and health by helping support their mother’s health, that’s a pretty big deal.”

Adams said that by looking into maternal health and early childhood nutrition, researchers have an opportunity to make a connection between health and nutrition that can have both immediate effects as well as effects later in life.

The research is not just about preventing disease, it is about optimizing outcomes in children.
Adams comes to UAMS from the University of California, Davis. His research investigates metabolic physiology and the causes and consequences of obesity and metabolic disorders.

Adams conducts innovative research into insulin resistance and metabolic profiles associated with obesity and type 2 diabetes.
One of his key goals as director is to understand how best to apply what researchers are learning at the lab bench and in studies with human volunteers back to a clinical or public setting, so that it can have a positive impact on a child’s life before he or she is even born.

Adams says the more researchers learn about those fundamental processes, the better advice clinicians will be able to provide expectant mothers about their diet and physical activity.

The research is not just about preventing disease, it is about optimizing outcomes in children.

“A lot of the research is related to cognitive function and brain biology,” Adams said. “That we may be able to optimize function in addition to disease prevention is pretty exciting. The two go hand in hand.”

As an example of potential dividends, the center’s studies on cognitive development should help explain the relationship between diets and optimizing attention and learning while in school.

Part of the center’s signature research includes the influence of maternal diet and physical activity, obesity and postnatal feeding on children’s physiological, psychological and cognitive development. The studies are being conducted by a nationally recognized team of UAMS Department of Pediatrics faculty, backed by top-tier support scientists and collaborators.