The UNC Nutrition Research Institute (NRI) is known as a center for precision nutrition research. Did you know that we are also a center for precision nutrition training? At the NRI, graduate students have the unique opportunity to learn and work alongside leaders in the field at our state-of-the-art institution. We are pleased to announce that two students have recently earned their PhD degrees under the guidance of NRI faculty.

Keri Baron, a graduate student in the lab of Natalia Krupenko, PhD, successfully defended her thesis on how ceramides, a group of bioactive lipids, respond to folate. The effects of low and high folate in mice fed a high-fat diet were studied to capture a broad range of intake, as you would see in humans. Some of their most exciting findings included:

  • Male and female mice responded very differently to dietary intervention. Several other studies have investigated plasma ceramides as potential biomarkers for disease states, but Dr. Baron and Dr. Krupenko have shown that it is incredibly important to assess sex differences in humans because ceramide metabolism appears to depend on sex.
  • While it is often assumed folate (a water-soluble vitamin) will be readily excreted if too much is consumed, the lab’s results indicated that high folate intake was similarly “bad” in terms of increasing plasma ceramide concentrations in male mice. Essentially, it didn’t matter if they were deficient or eating too much; they had very similar, and elevated, levels of specific ceramides that can be harmful when elevated.
  • The research team was also able to piece together more functions of the enzyme Ceramide Synthase 6, which adds to the current literature trying to understand the specific functions of six different isoforms of the same enzyme.

The new Dr. Baron is looking forward to doing more work on this study, which is so large the data collection alone took a full year. There is still much analysis to be done, and more findings to be had. In the future, she would like to teach, as she loves nutrition and talking about nearly every aspect of it.

Grant Canipe, a graduate student in the lab of Carol Cheatham, PhD, successfully defended his thesis on individualized cognitive decline and the impact of gut microbiome composition. His study was focused on identification and prediction of cognitive decline using the Cambridge Neuropsychological Test Automated Battery or CANTAB cognitive research software and visual event-related potential (ERP), as well as exploring the relation between gut-microbiome diversity and cognitive performance.  Two of the most exciting findings are:

  • An individual’s gut microflora can significantly influence gut-brain communication, brain function, and behavior.
  • Significant relations between gut-microbiome diversity and healthy cognitive function were revealed, where lower microbial diversity significantly relates to poorer cognitive performance on both behavioral (CANTAB) and electrophysiological (ERP) measures.

The study also included the design and implementation of novel methodology with two-step temporospatial principal component analysis (PCA) to successfully predict future performance on ERP with baseline performance on the same task, which, to Dr. Canipe’s knowledge, is the first known use of this method for this purpose. The new Dr. Canipe has hit the ground running, accepting a role as an Adjunct Professor in the Psychology Department at Elon University.

We are excited to follow the careers of Dr. Baron and Dr. Canipe as they continue to hone their skills as scientists and teachers. Congratulations to our newest PhDs!