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Naiman Khan CHAD grant
KCH Associate Professor Naiman Khan's presentation was titled "Role of Omega-3 Lipid Metabolites in Obesity and Cognitive Function"

CHAD symposium returns with thanks for pilot grants

The first Center for Health, Aging, and Disability (CHAD) symposium since 2017 was a celebration of the research accomplished with the help of the Pilot Grant Program.

Three researchers from the College of Applied Health Sciences—Naiman Khan, an associate professor in Kinesiology and Community Health; Brian Monson, an assistant professor in Speech and Hearing Science, and Sharon Zou, an assistant professor in Recreation, Sport and Tourism, made a point of thanking CHAD’s grants for helping launch their studies.

Khan, whose presentation was titled “Role of Omega-3 Lipid Metabolites in Obesity and Cognitive Function,” said CHAD’s funding was vital to his work.

“CHAD was really helpful in us starting a new line of engagement of research,” he said. 

CHAD director Jeff Woods, AHS’ associate dean for research, said to date, 38 pilot grants have been awarded since CHAD was launched in 2010, with $860,000 awarded to AHS researchers for pilot research. Woods described CHAD’s role as “work at the bookends of medicine … with the goal of improving people’s lives.”

“CHAD pilot grants are really important for junior faculty,” Zou said.

And the payoff has been well worth it, Woods said, citing the return on investment as approximately $16 in external funding to $1 in CHAD funding. 

Zou’s presentation was titled “Exploring an Efficient and Equitable Entrance Fee for Public Lands: A Community-based investigation in the Indiana Dunes National Park.”

“I study how people have fun,” Zou said, explaining that it was vital for public parks and other tourism industries to build a sustainable revenue model and not to rely on decreasing funding from state and federal sources. 

The primary purpose of Zou’s study was to “understand visitors' and surrounding community residents' perceptions of Indiana Dunes National Park user fees to inform a fee structure that balances revenue generation and equitable access.”

During and after the COVID-19 pandemic, Zou said, “parks saw explosions of people visiting.” While that was great for parks in terms of revenue, it also led to increasing operation costs at a time when government funding for these sites is being reduced.

“The specific goal is to find out how visitors see the park fees, and are they fair?,” Zou said.

The RST researcher said her preliminary findings indicate there was no consensus from study participants on what “fair” means, and that tension between fairness principles partly explains the longstanding controversy and debate on public land user fees.

Khan’s presentation focused on how poor lifestyle choices can predict an early onset of dementia, noting that obesity worldwide has increased threefold since the 1980s. The KCH researcher said his research, in conjunction with Aditi Das of Georgia Tech, suggested that the a deficiencyin the hormone dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA)—which has been reported to have beneficial effects on obesity, diabetes mellitus, and serum lipids in animals—was associated with individuals with a body-mass index (BMI) of 25 or higher, which is classified as obese.

“BMI is inversely connected to cognitive function,” Khan said. “Only in obese individuals do we see DHEA increase in circulation.” Khan said his preliminary results found:

  • Circulating Omega-3 metabolites were higher among persons with higher weight status and the levels were associated with degree of fat mass
  • Circulating metabolites inversely associated with cognitive function
  • Only observed among persons with overweight and obesity
  • Selectively associated with hippocampal function
  • Implications for memory function

Khan said his overarching goal was to “develop effective lifestyle approaches to improve cognitive function.”

SHS’ Monson discussed his study called “Capturing Prenatal Auditory Experience.”

“If there was a pregnant woman in this audience, that baby would be hearing my voice, and perhaps making judgments,” he said, drawing laughter from the gathering. “How do we know? Because full-term newborns come to the world with memories of what they’ve heard, including the mother’s voice.”

In utero, Monson explained, was a unique acoustic environment. When preterm infants are delivered, they are placed into incubators, which rapidly changed the sound profile, he said. The consequences of those changes include increased risk for sensorineural hearing loss, auditory neuropathy, language and speech developmental delays, auditory attention deficits and auditory processing disorder.

Monson’s study involved a group of pregnant women wearing a LENA listening device twice a week during the third trimester, while the device was placed into cribs of very preterm infants at Carle Foundation Hospital three times a week through their stay in a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU).

“Fetuses are getting 2.5 hours a day of speech exposure vs. 32 minutes a day for very preterm infants,” he said. “It’s an alarming difference to me.”
NICU infants may incur a deficit of about 150 hours of speech exposure over the course of the preterm period, he explained.

One of the possible mitigation strategies for very preterm infants could be to provide meaningful targets (about three hours a day of speech exposure) to optimize auditory exposures in NICU settings.

“The maternal heartbeat is never turned off in utero,” he said. “The maternal heartbeat is never turned on in NICU.”

Following the CHAD Pilot Grant success stories, Wendy Rogers, the Shahid and Ann Carlson Khan Professor of Applied Health Sciences, talked about the work of Collaborations in Health, Aging, Research, & Technology (CHART).

CHART’s mission is to enable successful aging through:

  • Fundamental research
  • Advanced technology development
  • Education of researchers, developers, healthcare professionals, older adults
  • Guidance for policy decision-making
  • Translation of these efforts to positively affect the lives of older adults

CHART was the first research theme of the College of Applied Health Sciences and boasts the development of the McKechnie Family LIFE Home, an interdisciplinary research facility and simulated home environment that helps promote community engagement, industry partnerships, healthcare collaborations and faculty innovation.

Also part of the symposium was the introduction of a new AHS research theme called CARD (Collaborations in the Advancement of Research on Disability), led by KCH Associate Professor Laura Rice and KCH Professor John Kosciulek. CARD is focused on enhancing the health and quality of life of people with disabilities—through research that addresses critical gaps in disability-related knowledge and outreach that engages individuals with disabilities. 

CARD’s short-term goals include:

  • Develop a collaborative working group
  • Develop communication strategies
  • Establish a steering committee of stakeholders
  • Develop and implement outreach and engagement events

Longer-term goals include:

  • Host a bi-annual research symposium
  • Develop a “toolkit” for UIUC faculty to support the performance of disability-related research in the Champaign-Urbana area
  • Respond to disability-related funding opportunities
  • Establish a competitive program to provide supplemental funding to support ongoing disability research among junior faculty
  • Host a seminar series with external experts
  • Establish a research training program for students registered with DRES interested in doing research
  • Support the development of new research registries and/or expansion of current registries

The first CARD meeting is set for March 22.

In kicking off the symposium, AHS Dean Cheryl Hanley-Maxwell said CHAD was “one of the biggest attractions” of her decision to come to Illinois and lead the college.

“When I thought about CHAD, I thought it’d be interesting to lead a college that has this kind of momentum to it, and I’ve been proven correct, year after year," she said. "CHAD provides students with real-world engagement, and plays an absolutely critical role in their professional development.”

Woods agreed.

“We’re helping put the next generation of scientists into the field.”

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