Elinor Sullivan Interview

New faculty member targets research on maternal nutrition

Physiologist Elinor Sullivan wants to understand early childhood health through the lens of maternal health.

Her research examines the influence of maternal nutrition and how other factors, such as the metabolic state of mothers during pregnancy, affect children during early development and result in long-term implications for lifelong health. She is one of the final hires in the UO’s Health Promotion and Obesity Prevention Initiative.

“My long-term goal is to develop strategies to provide women the knowledge and resources they need to create the optimal nutritional environment for their developing offspring,” Sullivan said. “My hope is that by providing this early in life, we are able to reduce the risk of childhood obesity and neurodevelopmental disorders.”

Sullivan is committed to combating childhood obesity in collaboration with a team that includes a biologist, psychologists and prevention science specialists. While other members of the team are more focused on childhood and adolescence, Sullivan is zeroing in on early environmental risks for childhood obesity.

“An advantage of working with an interdisciplinary team is that we are able to approach the study of health promotion and obesity prevention from multiple angles,” Sullivan said. “Childhood obesity rates have increased dramatically across the nation and it is important and powerful to address the problem as a group using our different lenses and backgrounds.”

With a dual appointment to the UO and the Division of Neuroscience at Oregon Health & Science University’s Oregon National Primate Center, Sullivan conducts research at both locations. She will begin teaching at the UO in winter term as an associate professor in the Department of Human Physiology.

One of the more surprising aspects to Sullivan’s research is the degree to which maternal obesity appears linked to offspring mental health and behavioral disorders. She’s exploring connections between maternal diet and obesity with anxiety, depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and other disorders.

Among the key findings of Sullivan’s research involving nonhuman primates is an increased risk for behavioral problems in offspring exposed to a maternal high-fat diet and maternal obesity. She’s found evidence that maternal consumption of a typical American diet is linked to increased anxiety and impairments in social behavior in offspring.

Sullivan has not pinpointed specific foods that are harmful to offspring when consumed by their mothers, but she says that one potential culprit is processed saturated fat common in the American diet. One of the likely beneficial classes of nutrients is omega-3 fatty acids contained in foods such as salmon and walnuts.

The next steps in her research will involve investigating the mechanisms behind the observed behavioral changes, including understanding the changes in the brain that underlie the alterations in behavior.

She also wants to see how her findings in nonhuman primates apply to humans. She has initiated studies that examine mothers and babies with the intention of translating some of the work she’s done in nonhuman primate models to humans.

Sullivan was drawn to the UO by a number of factors, including the opportunity to teach as well as conduct research. She’s teaching a nutrition course for nonmajors, which she hopes will be both practical as well as educational.

“It allows me to have an open discussion with students about nutrition,” Sullivan said. “I’ll be talking about the importance of nutrition during different stages of life and hope that I’m able to help some of these students to start consuming a healthy diet that will not only impact their long-term health but also have the potential to impact the health of their children.”

Additionally, she sees the UO as an opportunity for collaboration, both within the Health Promotion and Obesity Prevention Initiative and with other areas of research expertise. The UO has become a hub of innovative research involving the microbiome – the collective trillions of bacteria that reside within the human body, including the gut. She sees potential for collaborative research examining how changes within the microbiome of mothers and infants affect mental health.

In addition to her research at the UO, Sullivan also is creating a bridge to researchers at OHSU, highlighting the potential of collaborations between the institutions, especially with the UO’s Phil and Penny Knight Campus for Accelerating Scientific Impact, set to open its doors in 2020.

“I hope to foster collaborations between the two institutes by identifying and introducing individuals with synergistic research expertise,” Sullivan said. “This connection will also allow us to share resources and facilities, elevating Oregon’s biomedical research potential and allowing us to be a hub of biomedical scientific discovery.”

By Lewis Taylor, University Communications