Graduate student receives grant to study how maternal gut microbiome affects social behavior of offspring

Author: Iqbal Pittalwala
June 1, 2022

Doctoral student Elena Kozlova has received a $25,000 grant from the food and beverage company Danone North America to explore how the gut microbiome, probiotics, and yogurt help support and maintain human health and wellness.

The 2021-2022 Danone North America Gut Microbiome, Yogurt and Probiotics Fellowship Grant will help Kozlova study how the maternal gut microbiome — comprised of bacteria, fungi, and other microbes — affects the social behavior of offspring. 

Elena Kozlova.

The other recipient of the award this year is Yannis Ntekas of Cornell University.

“Both Elena Kozlova and Yannis Ntekas are poised to conduct successful studies and have impactful careers that will contribute to scientific discoveries and expand our understanding of probiotics, the gut microbiome, and human health,” said Miguel Freitas, vice president of health and scientific affairs at Danone North America.

The Danone Fellowship Grant was established in 2010 to provide funding to incoming or current graduate students for novel studies of yogurt, probiotics, and the gut microbiome. Kozlava and Ntekas were chosen based on the quality of their proposals, faculty recommendations, and their studies’ value to human health and wellness.

Kozlova expects the grant will help her dissertation research, which aims to understand how a class of fire-retardant chemicals — polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs — influence social behavior. In her research, she examines the effects of exposure to PBDE in consumer products on behavior, gene expression and social brain network connectivity. She also studies the actions of PBDEs as metabolic disrupting chemicals and the role of high fat diet on gene changes in the brain.

“The gut microbiome is emerging as an influential factor in host health; therefore, this grant provides excellent training opportunities in this exciting new field of research and will help guide scientific advancements,” Kozlava said. “The interaction between gut microbiota and environmental toxicants is not well studied. This grant will allow us to examine the potential to promote healthy development of social neuropeptide and thyroid endocrine systems as well as how male and female offspring may be differentially affected. Lastly, we will better understand how maternal breast milk can provide a healthy microbiome.”

Kozlova joined UCR in 2017. She completed her undergraduate education at Foothill Community College and UCR. She expects to graduate in 2024 with a doctoral degree in neuroscience. Her graduate advisor is Margarita Curras-Collazo, a professor of neuroscience in the Department of Molecular, Cell and Systems Biology.

"Using this award Elena will test whether probiotic therapy administered early during development can prevent abnormal behavior and brain changes produced by environmental toxicants," Curras-Collazo said. "The proposed studies build upon our recent findings that early life exposure to PBDEs produces autistic-like features and reduced levels of pro-social neuropeptides in the brain. Because of her scholarly approach, dedication and productivity, Elena is poised to make significant contributions to understanding the potential benefits of probiotic therapy to neurodevelopment."

In her research, Kozlova will also collaborate with Ansel Hsiao, an assistant professor of microbiology and plant pathology

She is the recipient of a UC-President’s Pre-Professoriate Fellowship and a 2022 Syngenta Fellowship Award in Human Health Applications of New Technologies.