Abbott Laboratories and its Abbott Nutrition unit and the University of Illinois in December established what they claim is the first multi-disciplinary nutrition and cognition research center, which will be located on the U of I's main campus in Urbana. The Center for Nutrition, Learning and Memory will lead directed and solicited research on the impact of nutrition on learning and memory in the human brain.
"This is a very big scientific effort on the part of Abbott. We'll be doing truly groundbreaking research that combines nutrition and neuroscience," says Keith Garleb, director of global discovery research at Abbott Nutrition (www.abbottnutrition.com), Columbus, Ohio. Parent Abbott Laboratories is headquartered in Abbott Park (essentially North Chicago), Ill.
The first round of research proposals just closed in January, so nothing has been set in stone yet. But Garleb expects at least some of the studies to focus on lutein, docosahexaenoic acid (omega-3 fatty acid DHA) and iron. Coincidentally, those ingredients are just as critical for early brain development and learning in infants as they are in retaining cognitive functions in seniors. Also coincidentally, those are Abbott Nutrition's two key markets: infant feeding, via its Similac and other products, and nutritional supplementation, especially for the aged, via its Ensure products.
A fair amount of scientific research exists linking those ingredients to cognitive functions at both ends of the age spectrum. But Garleb said there is less research – but perhaps more Abbott interest – in combinations of those ingredients with the synergistic whole being greater than the sum of the parts. He also said the center would love to find some magic bullet that comes out of left field – our words, not his. "That would be great – that's what we really hope for," he says.
While the door is open for the potential research, "Our goal, of course, is to use it to develop nutritional products that benefit learning and memory," Garleb says. "If we were able through this research and this association to identify novel food ingredients, we would leverage that knowledge."
The center will utilize two world-renowned research facilities on the Urbana campus, the Institute for Genomic Biology and Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology, in addition to the University's Division of Nutritional Sciences and Neuroscience Program.
"Combining Abbott's leadership in science-based nutrition with the best-in-class capabilities at Illinois and the world's best scientific minds in the areas of nutrition, brain and cognition will allow us to advance unique and meaningful breakthroughs in this area of research," said Robert Miller, divisional vice president of R&D and Scientific Affairs at Abbott Nutrition.
Illinois Professor Neal Cohen, director of the Neuroscience Program, will be a director of the new center. "Enhancing learning and memory through nutrition could have truly transformative effects on childhood development and resisting the effects of aging and disease," said Cohen. "This collaboration builds on more than 20 years of scientific partnership between Abbott and the university."
The center will direct an annual call for proposals that is designed to uncover innovative scientific research relating to nutrition's role in learning and memory. The first call for research proposals closed on Jan. 6, unfortunately, but will be an annual event. Initial projects will be identified about Feb. 6, and soon thereafter a committee will decide which ones to fund. Funding will be determined by a joint committee from the university and Abbott.
Despite the deadlines, Garleb said a truly innovative idea could be brought to the committee's attention at any time during the year.
Thje leve of funding was not specified, but Garleb said it's in the "millions of dollars."
Abbott, by the way, is in the process of splitting into two companies. By the end of this year, Abbott's diversified medical products company – essentially Abbott-branded products and devices, generic pharmaceuticals, and the nutritional businesses -- will retain the Abbott name. Spun off into a new, as yet unnamed, company will be the more research-based pharmaceuticals company.
Additional information about the Center for Nutrition, Learning and Memory is at www.CNLM.illinois.edu.