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NIH Division of Nutrition Research Coordination

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Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD)

Priorities and Programs in Nutrition

Consistent with the NICHD mission, the nutrition research program is focused on the continuum of human development, from conception through infancy, childhood, and adolescence. The nutrition research program emphasizes the evidence base needed to support domestic and global programs in health promotion and disease preventive through expanded understanding of the role of diet and nutrition in normal development as well as the myriad of conditions and stresses that can impact on health.

Coordinated through the Endocrinology, Nutrition and Growth Branch (ENGB), the NICHD nutrition portfolio is multidisciplinary in nature, involving genetic, biochemical, developmental, anthropometric, behavioral, and cultural aspects of nutrition. The historical focus of the NICHD nutrition extramural portfolio has been on several core areas:

  • Nutrient requirements and best feeding practices for newborn infants including full term, premature, and low birth weight infants
  • Lactation:
    • Mammary gland development and physiology
    • Ontogeny of breast milk
    • Human milk composition
    • Factors affecting prevalence of breastfeeding:
      • Lactation performance, initiation and duration of breastfeeding
      • Social/behavioral factors influencing infant feeding choices
  • Intake regulation
    • Social/cultural/behavioral aspects
    • Sensory response (i.e., development of hedonic response to food/dietary constituents)
  • Growth and development
    • Physical (e.g., bone health)
    • Cognitive/behavioral

Within this broad agenda, NICHD support programs the address such related issues as:

  • Impact of nutrition on reproduction;
  • Nutritional therapy of inborn errors of metabolism;
  • Assessment of nutritional status;
  • Role of nutrition as both a predictor and an outcome of infectious (e.g., HIV, malaria, TB, diarrheal disease) and non-communicable diseases (e.g., diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer) and their treatment.

NICHD’s interest in the above areas continues to expand. An area of high public health priority is best practices for feeding infants >6 months including the nutrient requirements for healthy growth and development and the modes for delivery of those nutrients to infants beyond the period of exclusive breastfeeding (> 6 months of age) via complementary feeding. Interest centers on metabolic processes in neonatal adaptation and on the role played by essential nutrients and other components of human milk. For example, NICHD has supported seminal work elucidating the effects of specific bioactive components of human milk, e.g., oligosaccharides, lactoferrin on immune function and nutrient delivery.

NICHD continues to encourage research on cultural and behavioral determinants of nutritional individuality including studies of factors affecting the development of eating habits, taste, and olfaction; food avoidances; and behavior modification of dietary intakes.

NICHD plays a leadership role in efforts to understand the role of the fetal environment in subsequent health outcomes including development of adult diseases. In a similar vein the portfolio is actively growing in studies of the origins in childhood obesity and other components of the metabolic syndrome later in life. A particular focus of these efforts has been on those factors that contribute to documented health disparities in the US.

In the area of international nutrition research, the NICHD has played a leadership role within the NIH community through the development of the trans-NIH Subcommittee on International Nutrition Research, a subcommittee of the NIH Nutrition Coordinating Committee. The current NICHD international nutrition research portfolio is coalesced around areas of traditional interest, e.g., the role and impact of specific micronutrients (e.g., vitamin A, zinc and iron) in maternal and child health, as well as emerging programs in the role of nutrition in health promotion and disease prevention. Among the current priorities are the safety and effectiveness of common nutritional interventions in the context of prevention, care and treatment of infectious (e.g., HIV, malaria, TB) and non-communicable diseases in resource constrained settings. Through partnerships with other funding agencies (e.g., the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation) and the global health community (as technical consultant to the World Health Organization), NICHD has played an important role in addressing a range of issues affecting global health programs and policies.

The ability to identify, develop and implement biomarkers to assess nutrient status has emerged as a high priority for NICHD. This interest is exemplified by a new program called “Biomarkers of Nutrition for Development: BOND” which is intended to harmonize the process for discovery, development and use of nutrient biomarkers across a range of applications and to develop the necessary evidence through new research to support the use and implementation of new biomarkers utilizing state-of-the-art technologies.

Research Directions

Examples of current nutrition research supported by the NICHD are studies of:

  • The effects of vitamins on reproductive function and morphology; the relationship between oral contraceptive use, cervical dysplasia, and folate levels.
  • Nutrient requirements during pregnancy and the mechanisms of placental transfer of essential nutrients and the influence of these nutrients on normal and abnormal fetal development.
  • Events governing development of the gastrointestinal tract from fetal life to adulthood. The role of human colostrum and milk in stimulating development of the gastrointestinal tract and protecting it from disease are of special interest.
  • Human milk, cow milk, soy milk and synthetic formula to assess the requirements for optimal growth and development in normal and low birth weight infants, as well as development of the intestinal immune system and its relationship to autoimmune disease later in life.
  • The idenfication and role of non-nutritional compounds of human milk in terms of their specific effects on breast-fed infant.
  • The effect of micronutrient supplementation on reducing rates of infectious diseases and their attendant morbidity and mortality in infants and children living in low-/middle income countries.
  • Behavioral, neurochemical, genetic, and hormonal factors in childhood obesity.
  • The influence of nutritional factors (e.g., iron) on cognitive development and behavior in both normal subjects and patients with inborn errors of metabolism.
  • Mechanisms to explain the impact of nutritional status (e.g., on HIV disease progression) and specific micronutrients (e.g., iron) on disease pathogenesis.
  • Safety of public health nutrition interventions in the context of infections such as HIV and malaria.

For more information on the NICHD nutrition program, contact:

Daniel J. Raiten, Ph.D.
Program Officer-Nutrition
Endocrinology, Nutrition, and Growth Branch
Center for Research for Mothers and Children
Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD).
National Institutes of Health (NIH)
6100 Executive Blvd-Rm 4B-11
Bethesda, MD 20892
Phone: +1 (301) 435-7568
FAX: +1 (301) 480-9791

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This page last reviewed: January 20, 2011