College of Agriculture & Natural Resources
Nutrition & Food Science

Standout Student Studies Link Between Diet and ADHD

Active AGNR Ambassador conducts research about diet’s effect on Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.
Image Credit: 
Karishma Patel

“You are what you eat,” or at least that’s what UMD junior Karishma Patel believes. The nutritional sciences and physiology/neurobiology double major is investigating a link between nutrition and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

A vegetarian member of the Gemstone honors program -- a four year interdisciplinary program in which students develop and conduct their own research projects -- Patel says she was inspired by increasing diagnoses of ADHD in conjunction with the increased use of food additives in the diets of modern day children.

Planning to go to medical school to potentially study neonatology and sports medicine, and considering getting a certification as a clinical nutrition specialist after that, Patel is using her undergraduate years to combine her academic interests with her future aspirations.

“Diet is an important link to ADHD because families realized that the standard psychostimulant drug treatment has negative side effects on children…[so] families look to alternative dietary treatments [where] patients eliminate certain substances from their diet or take supplements to improve symptoms,” Patel said. “Our team is specifically looking at yellow food dye and the effects it has on ADHD symptoms.”

Formerly known as tartrazine, yellow food dye has been found to cause hyperactivity and allergic reactions in numerous consumers, causing many countries to ban the substance all together.

“We hope our research contributes to eliminating tartrazine in an ADHD patient’s diet,” Patel said.

Using the Spontaneously Hypertensive Rat model, groups of rats will be given varying diets of tartrazine over the course of 30 days. The ten-student research team will then run impulsivity and hyperactivity tests, eventually going on to biochemically study the rats’ brain tissues, specifically checking dopamine levels.

“We expect to see that if there is an increase in dietary tartrazine, the brain will be affected by showing decreased levels of dopamine which mirrors what we see in ADHD patients,” Patel explained. “We also expect to see an increase in behavioral symptoms of ADHD such as hyperactivity and impulsivity.”

Mentored by Dr. Thomas Castonguay, professor in the Nutrition and Food Science Department, the team is currently halfway through the treatment period for their first group of rats.

“Our study is unique because we are looking at both biological and behavioral changes in test subjects which may point us to a potential biological mechanism by which changes in ADHD symptoms occur,” Patel continued. “It’s a really fun project because our team [members] are the ones going into the lab day in and day out, [and] Dr. Castonguay has helped us acquire training on rat care and lab work.”

However, Patel’s project is not the only thing that makes the ambitious student unique. As an AGNR Ambassador,  clinician at the Children’s Development Center, co-director of UMD’s United InnoWorks Academy (a STEM education mentoring program), and a supplemental instructor in General Chemistry I for the Academic Achievement program, Patel stands to show that no matter how busy life may get, nothing can stand in the way of academic passion.

“I want people to see that it is possible to get their foot in all types of extracurricular activities; I have been able to do research, travel abroad, tutor, and volunteer with children,” Patel said. “I also want people to know that it is really important to pursue your interests in your academic life. Enjoy what you are interested in!”


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