The vibrant, diverse brain health community at Illinois is working to find solutions to some of today’s most pressing societal health challenges in fields including aging; learning, memory and plasticity; nutrition and cognition; neuroengineering; neuro-and socio-genomics; bioinformatics; and more. More than 300 faculty and staff on the Urbana-Champaign campus identify as researchers in the brain health space—regardless of their home department affiliation. These researchers are using leading-edge imaging tools, pioneering studies that progress from the lab to clinical applications with the goal of improving the health and lives of people everywhere.
Naiman Khan, PhD
Assistant Professor, Department of Kinesiology and Community Health
Naiman Khan, PhD, is an assistant professor in the Department of Kinesiology and Community Health and principal investigator of the Body Composition & Nutritional Neuroscience Laboratory. His research utilizes a multidisciplinary approach to integrate knowledge in the disciplines of dietetics, body composition, and cognitive neuroscience to understand the interactions between nutrition, abdominal adiposity, and cognitive and brain health in the pediatric and adult populations. The knowledge gained from this work is used to develop effective dietary interventions to mitigate the detrimental effects of obesity and metabolic risk on physical and mental health. Prof. Khan received his BS (2006) in Nutritional Sciences from Louisiana State University in 2006, followed by an MS (2009) and PhD (2012) in Nutritional Sciences at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.
What is your research in brain health about?
Childhood represents an important stage of cognitive and brain development and consumption of adequate nutrition during this period stands to benefit long-term academic success. My laboratory conducts translational research to integrate knowledge in the areas of nutrition and cognitive neuroscience to understand the influence of foods and nutrients on specific aspects of attention and memory. One of the nutrients we are interested in is the carotenoid lutein and its effects on attention, memory, and achievement in children. Data from human and non-human primate brains has now established that, among the numerous carotenoids consumed in our diet, lutein is disproportionately accumulated in the brain and retinal tissue. Randomized-controlled studies have also demonstrated that lutein consumption improves cognitive function among young and older adults. However, research examining the effects of dietary lutein on childhood cognitive function remains limited. One of the main lines of inquiry in our lab has aimed to elucidate the variability in lutein consumption and physiological status on attentional control and relational memory in children. Other lines of investigation have focused on hydration, and the effects of obesity and metabolic risk on cognitive health. We have also extended this work to adults with elevated weight status and persons with Multiple Sclerosis in recent years.
How are you conducting your research?
We utilize a variety of different techniques in the laboratory to assess outcomes in each of the areas of interest. Dietary assessments usually involve a combination of self-reported surveys and biomarkers in blood and urine. We have also increasingly used non-invasive biophysical approaches to estimate carotenoids in the retina (heterochromatic flicker photometry) and skin (reflection spectroscopy). Body composition assessments rely on anthropometrics as well as radiographic (dual energy x-ray absorptiometry) and ultrasonography techniques. Finally, routine cognitive assessments in the lab use computerized cognitive tasks to assess cognitive control or executive function with event-related brain potentials, hippocampal-dependent relational memory, and pencil and paper assessments of performance on standardized scales of intellectual, academic, and cognitive abilities.
How does being part of the Illinois community support and enhance your research?
We rely on successful collaborations with several colleagues across campus. For example, we are currently collaborating with Dr. Nicholas Burd (Kinesiology and Community Health) to understand the effects of resistance training and protein consumption on attentional control and relational memory. We are also collaborating with Dr. Brad Sutton (Bioengineering) and Dr. Aditi Das (Comparative Biosciences) to study the relationship between nutritional markers of neuroinflammation, obesity, and viscoelastic properties of the brain among school-aged children. Through collaborations with Dr. John Erdman, Jr. (Nutritional Sciences) and Dr. Hannah Holscher (Food Science and Human Nutrition), we have conducted studies among adults to understand the links between cognitive function and serum carotenoids and gastrointestinal microbiome, respectively. We are also collaborating with Dr. William O’Brien (Electrical and Computer Engineering) to examine risk for non-alcoholic fatty liver disease in children and adults. An on-going collaboration with Dr. Sharon Donovan (Nutritional Sciences) aims to understand how early life nutrition and gastrointestinal microbiome contribute to growth trajectories and body composition in a large longitudinal cohort of young children (STRONG Kids 2). We are also collaborating with Dr. Jacob Sosnoff (Kinesiology and Community Health) and a large team of faculty as part of the Illinois Multiple Sclerosis Research Collaborative. Finally, we have an on-going collaboration with Dr. Kevin Richards (Kinesiology and Community Health) that aims to use a multimodal summer youth wellness program to improve social and emotional learning, nutrition literacy, and cognitive function among children from lower-income households. These collaborations are possible because of the tremendous collaborative environment and support at the University of Illinois.
How will your research or work improve society or reach people?
It is concerning that many children in the United States fail meet their daily recommended dietary and physical activity goals. The long-term objective of our work is to develop the evidence base for informing dietary guidelines or policies as they pertain to cognitive health across the lifespan. This knowledge could be particularly impactful for school lunch policies aimed at optimizing childhood cognitive function and achievement.
Do you have a personal story to share or path that led to your interest in this area of study?
My interest in nutritional neuroscience first emerged during the final year of my doctoral training. During that time, I was a Graduate Research Assistant with the University of Illinois Cooperative Extension and my responsibilities included working with school teachers across the state of Illinois. Therefore, I spent a considerable amount of time in school settings and, given my training as a dietitian, I was concerned about the poor nutritional quality of school lunch meals. I found myself wondering about the potential for nutrition in school settings to help address some of the troubling health and academic disparities, often observed among children from lower-income households. This interest eventually led me to pursue postdoctoral training in Pediatric Neurocognitive Kinesiology under the advisement of Dr. Charles Hillman. Following my postdoctoral training, I was able to apply the new skills I gained in cognitive neuroscience to address questions regarding the role of nutrition in cognitive function and brain health in my own research program.