Kevin Stegall, age 8, sits in front of a touch-screen computer, moving shapes around with his computer. He is participating in a scientific study, looking into his brain and how it is developing.
Kelly Will, a graduate student from UNC-Chapel Hill, watches him, making sure he is performing the tasks correctly.
Will is part of the first class of Kannapolis Scholars at the N.C. Research Campus, a program funded by a $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Graduate students from UNC-system schools represented at the research campus come to Kannapolis to study under a researcher.
Will works for Carol Cheatham in the UNC Nutrition Research Institute studying the effect of omega-VI and omega-III fatty acids on the brain development of 7- to 9- year-olds.
This work is charting into unknown territory, Will said.
"We know that omega-IIIs have an effect on the heart and the brain," Will said. "When it comes to the brain, we've only determined that omega-IIIs is good for the vision of infants born pre-term."
Omega-IIIs and omega-VIs are processed by the body the same way, by the same enzymes through the same metobolic pathway. Cells use emzymes to process fatty acids to use for fuel. It just so happens that the body uses the same enzyme to process omega-IIIs and omega-VIs.
Most of the nutrition research in this area is done on children ages 2 and under, Will said.
But the brain is still developing all through childhood, especially in the pre-frontal cortex. Higher-order brain functions, like planning, attention and working memory, are controlled by the pre-frontal cortex.
The body processes a ratio of omega-IIIs and omega-VIs it receives through diet. Will and her mentor, Cheatham, want to know what is the best ratio for brain development in children.
"We don't know what the best ratio of fatty acids is," Will said. "A lot of studies use a 4-to-1 ratio (omega-VI to omega-III) as ideal. In the standard American diet, the ratio is 15-to-1."
The problem, Will said, is that omega-VIs could mask the effects of omega-IIIs, because they both are processed by the same enzyme.
"If omega-VIs are using all the enzymes, that limits omega-III's effectiveness in frontal lobe processes," Will said.
Will's study dovetails with Cheatham's study, which looks at the effect of omega-IIIs on the brain development of infants and toddlers.
"She (Will) has taken it up an age level," Cheatham said. "I am establishing the efforts of omega-IIIs. She is looking at how omega-IIIS can be thwarted through basic diet."
Cheatham's hypothesis: That omega-IIIs can help brain development just like it can help strengthen the heart.
Will needs 70 participants, ages 7 to 9, for her study. Part of the study protocol includes calling the participant three times to ask about their diet during that particular day. Then the participant and a parent comes in the lab. The participant plays games that test his or her cognitive and reasoning abilities, while the parent fills out a questionaire about the child's diet.
For more information, contact the Cheatham Lab at www.cheathamlab.com or 704-250-5018.
Contact web reporter Ben McNeely: 704-789-9131