Sandra M. Mooney, PhD

Associate Professor of Nutrition

Sandra Mooney, PhD joined the UNC Chapel Hill Nutrition Research Institute in August 2018 as an Associate Professor of Nutrition. Her research program investigates the effect(s) of environment and genes on brain development, with a focus on prenatal alcohol exposure. Current studies use animal models to understand how nutritional needs change after alcohol exposure, thereby increasing the chances that modifying (or personalizing) nutrition will optimize growth and development. This work is supported by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). Dr. Mooney received her Ph.D. from the University of Otago in New Zealand.

The overall theme of Dr. Mooney’s research is to understand normal brain development, how exposure to alcohol (and other drugs or experiences) disrupts this, what the behavioral outcomes are, and whether simple nutrition-based interventions can improve outcomes. Developmental exposure to ethanol profoundly affects development of the nervous system. Indeed, fetal alcohol exposure is described as the primary known cause of mental retardation, and recent estimates suggest that 2-5% of US children can be diagnosed with a Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder.


Show More

Dr. Mooney’s work has contributed to understanding that alcohol alters cell proliferation, migration, and death; all of which are critical for brain development. She has also examined the role of growth factors in these processes and shown that their expression and/or activity is altered by developmental exposure to alcohol. Ongoing work describes behavioral outcomes after acute or chronic exposure to alcohol. The acute alcohol exposure model allows understanding of how changes in anatomy, protein expression, and gene and microRNA expression in the brain align with behavioral changes. Dr. Mooney was the first to show that the timing of the alcohol exposure… 

defines the social behavior deficit, and that outcomes were sex- and age-dependent. These findings help to explain the spectrum of outcomes seen in the human population.

The lab also explores potential rescue therapy to ameliorate the effects of alcohol. Importantly, the focus is on therapies that are used after birth and could be translated into treatments for humans with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders. New studies in the design or early stages investigate the gut microbiome and structure of the gastrointestinal tract and liver.

Mooney’s Team

Carolyn Munson : Research Specialist, Mooney Lab

Carolyn Munson

Research Specialist, Mooney Lab

Carolyn Munson graduated in 2015 from Rowan Cabarrus Community College with an AAS in biotechnology. She is working as a research technician in the Surzenko Lab at the NRI. Much of her work is directed by Dr. Natalia Surzenko performing immunohistochemistry work.
Hannah Petry : Graduate Student, Mooney Lab

Hannah Petry

Graduate Student, Mooney Lab

Hannah obtained her Bachelor of Science in Nutritional Sciences and Dietetics in May 2022 from Texas Tech University. She joined the NRI and began her doctoral studies in Fall 2022. She works in the Mooney Lab to research fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD).
Nathan Pressley : Research Technician, Mooney Lab

Nathan Pressley

Research Technician, Mooney Lab

Nathan graduated from UNC at Greensboro in May 2023 with a BS in Psychology and a Minor in Statistics. He is from Gold Hill, NC and has family from Kannapolis. Nathan is excited to join Dr. Mooney’s lab and to learn all that he can during his time at the NRI. In his free time, he enjoys gardening, spending time with his dogs, and kayaking.

In the News

NRI Trainees Climbing the Ladder of Success

A core objective of the NRI is to provide training opportunities to the next generation of researchers in precision nutrition, including graduate and undergraduate students. These young researchers, selected from the tops of their classes, are mentored by the NRI’s...

Nutrient Supplements as a Treatment for FASD

While the best defense against fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD) remains avoiding alcohol consumption during pregnancy, research has shown that dietary choline supplementation can reduce at least some of the cognitive and behavioral problems associated with FASD...