First CNLM Awards Illustrate Balanced Approach to Research

The first grants awarded from the Center for Nutrition, Learning, and Memory demonstrate the balanced approach that the University of Illinois units and funding partner Abbott were aiming for with this first-ever interdisciplinary cognition and nutrition research center.

The first grants awarded from the Center for Nutrition, Learning, and Memory demonstrate the balanced approach that the University of Illinois units and funding partner Abbott were aiming for with this first-ever interdisciplinary cognition and nutrition research center.

Thirteen proposals, it was announced Monday, were selected to receive more than $12M in grant funding for interdisciplinary research projects investigating the links between nutrition, the brain, and cognition. The Center for Nutrition, Learning, and Memory (CNLM) was formed in late 2011 with a goal of fast-tracking research projects.

A “Grand Challenge” was announced in December as part of an annual competition for grant proposals focusing on “novel research that explores the development of nutritional compounds to enhance learning and memory at different stages within the lifespan involving cognition and nutrition.”

CNLM is a partnership between Abbott Nutrition, a division of Abbott, and Illinois units, the Beckman Institute, the Institute for Genomic Biology (IGB), the Division of Nutritional Sciences, and the Neuroscience Program. Neal Cohen is the Illinois Director of the Center for Nutrition, Learning and Memory, while Keith Garleb, Director of Global Discovery Research at Abbott Nutrition, is the Abbott Director of CNLM.

This first round of grants will fund a wide range of research, led by more than 40 investigators representing 16 different departments and units on campus, joined by postdoctoral fellows, graduate students, and staff. Cohen was impressed by the quality of the proposals submitted and selected, and by the funding from Abbott for this initial round of its five-year commitment to the Center.

We are very pleased with the support we’re getting from Abbott to move ahead aggressively and also very pleased by the response we’ve gotten from the University of Illinois investigators. They have really embraced these opportunities and come through with fantastic proposals.
– Neal Cohen

“We are very pleased with the support we’re getting from Abbott to move ahead aggressively and also very pleased by the response we’ve gotten from the University of Illinois investigators,” Cohen said. “They have really embraced these opportunities and come through with fantastic proposals.”

Cohen said the plan from the start was to select proposals representing a balanced approach to the center’s research goals, and those accepted in this first round meet that principle. 

“In the selection process we had in mind the idea of a portfolio, and that the portfolio would be balanced,” he said. “We mean balanced in a number of ways, both human studies and animal studies and that within the human studies we target a number of different ages and populations.”

Cohen added that balance also includes different categories of projects, such as intervention-based research that tests the effects of nutritional compounds, or developing research support facilities for testing nutrients, for example.

In addition to a balanced approach to research, guiding principles of the Center include creating synergies between different kinds of efforts, and integrating Center-funded projects with current or proposed projects, such as those funded by National Institutes of Health grants.

“In each of the categories, rather than having one of each type, what we tried to do was find projects that would provide strong synergies,” Cohen said. “So there are several projects that focus on neurogenesis, which is the creation of new neurons in the hippocampus, the part of the brain critical to learning and memory. Another example is a couple of proposals on the synergistic effects of exercise and nutrition.

“A final guiding principle in selecting our portfolio was the idea of leveraging funding from other sources, which combined with funding of the Center, would produce even stronger results, and an even stronger Center. That provides real power in our ability to make the money go further, or bring nutrition to the NIH-funded proposals if it wasn’t already part of it.”

The proposals selected represent a cross-section of departments and units at the University of Illinois, with collaborations stretching from the United States and Canada to Europe that include other universities, research centers, foundations, and Abbott Nutrition. Cohen said there will be more widespread collaborations, including international ones, in the second round, set to begin in July with proposal submission workshops for researchers.

“We’re moving everything much earlier in the year for Round 2 than we had in Round One,” Cohen said. “The new set of projects will begin in January. That means we are going to be soliciting proposals in the summer, early fall, with pre-proposals due on September 7th, which is less than five months from the start date of the Round One projects.”

Cohen said this first round is a great beginning for a center that has gone from signed agreement to funding research in less than six months. 

“I am very excited about the projects that are going forward,” he said. “And some of the projects which we weren’t able to fund in the first round, we will be encouraging to come back in Round 2 with specific suggestions about how to improve them, along with brand new proposals of various kinds. So we are tremendously excited about the rate of progress.”