In early life many biological and behavioral systems are being set, or ‘programmed’, making it a period of risk as well as of opportunity. Carolina de Weerth’s research focusses on how early environmental factors shape a child’s development. She combines biology and psychology, e.g., by studying mother-child interactions and childcare, but also by studying stress, diet, and intestinal bacteria in pregnancy and (early) childhood. She tries to determine how these factors influence children’s behavior, health, and mental capacities. She’s especially interested in factors that play an important role in programming but that can be modified through interventions to improve the child’s life.
My plans for the fellowship period
In childhood, cognitive capacities are essential for learning new skills and participating in formal education. Many different factors facilitate the development of a child’s cognitive capacities: from socioeconomic factors and diet, to the quality of care. In my fellowship, I will focus on one potentially very relevant factor that has received little attention to date: the bacteria in our intestines. Intestinal bacteria have a central role in our health, but may also modulate brain development and functioning. Studies in humans have now shown that consuming beneficial bacteria (probiotics) can reduce stress, improve health and mood, and potentially impact cognition. However, the development of the intestinal bacteria in relation to child cognitive development is an unexplored area to date.
My goal is to develop the novel and promising field of microbiota-cognition dynamics by performing highly translational research with probiotic interventions. Within the Jacobs Foundation TRECC program in Ivory Coast, I will carry out two probiotic studies, in infants and in preschoolers. The aim is to determine whether this probiotic supplement can be linked to better cognitive functioning. The ultimate goal is to improve children’s basic conditions for learning by achieving healthy brain development in a relatively easy and affordable manner.
How will my work change children’s and youth’s lives?
The aim of my work is to improve cognition, and hence school readiness, of children 0-5, as well as to improve their health, physical, and psychological well-being. Locally produced probiotic yoghurt has been safely used in children of other Sub-Saharan countries and found to improve children’s health. I will take the next step by testing whether a probiotic intervention boosts children’s cognitive and learning capacities as well. In any case, having good nutritious products by themselves, improves energy and learning capacity in children. The knowledge obtained from my project may therefore readily be translated into larger interventions for improving learning in Ivory Coast and other developing countries, transforming children’s education and future employability.
I additionally plan to facilitate the creation of microenterprises dedicated to the production of probiotic yoghurt in cocoa communities. These social business models are ‘yoghurt kitchens’ that empower local people, especially women, and that produce an accessible, natural food supplement that benefits the community by improving health and providing women with an income. In this way I hope to further contribute to community development. These microenterprises will also help provide children with health-enhancing probiotics in a sustainable manner that will continue long after I finished the project.