Division of Nutritional Sciences at Illinois receives USDA training grant for gut-brain axis research

November 16, 2018
Rod Johnson and Elvira de Mejia

URBANA, Ill. – The USDA and the University of Illinois have announced nearly a quarter million dollars in new funding to support seven doctoral students in the Division of Nutritional Sciences, an interdisciplinary graduate program within the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences at U of I.

The USDA operates its National Needs Fellowship program to boost expertise in scientific topics of national priority, including, in this case, human nutrition. More specifically, the students will receive interdisciplinary training in the area of nutrition and the gut-brain axis, focusing on development and healthy aging.

“Interactions between nutrition, the microbiome, and cognition are among the most rapidly emerging areas of scientific investigation, driving demand for qualified trainees for positions in academia and industry,” says Rodney Johnson, head of the Department of Animal Sciences at U of I, and program director for the training grant.    

Scientists are only beginning to understand the links between gut microbial communities and brain function. As microbes break down food, they release chemicals that circulate in the body and influence our brain chemistry, which, in turn, influences everything from our mood to our immune response. Scientists at U of I have found that these relationships can even influence brain development during gestation, as well as healthy aging in the brain. 

“DNS is renowned as an outstanding graduate training program – it ranks among the top five nutritional sciences graduate programs in the country. This training grant demonstrates the highly interdisciplinary nature of DNS. It will bring together 13 outstanding faculty members from three different colleges and four departments to train doctoral students who will become leaders in this exciting emerging area of research,” says Elvira de Mejia, DNS director and professor in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition at U of I.

During the past 20 years, DNS has trained 38 graduate students and four postdoctoral fellows on seven institutional training grants from the National Institutes of Health and the USDA, totaling over $7 million. DNS plans to enroll three new doctoral students in fall 2019 and four in the fall of 2020. For more information on the program, prospective students can visit https://nutrsci.illinois.edu/future-students.

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