Boston Children's Hospital to Co-Lead a 25-Center NIH-Funded Study of Brain Development From Birth to Age 10

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Boston Children's Hospital has been awarded two five-year grants by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to co-lead the HEALthy Brain and Child Development (HBCD) study, an ambitious, comprehensive national study of brain development from birth through early childhood.

The study will enroll about 7,500 pregnant mothers and their infants at 25 sites across the United States, including Boston Children's, and follow the children from birth to the age of 10 years. The findings will provide a "template" for healthy brain development and give insight into how environmental factors — poverty, nutrition, pollution, maternal stress, maternal drug use, COVID-19 infection, and more — may alter infants' developmental trajectories.

"To understand how different exposures affect brain development, we need a template of what typical brain development looks like," says Charles Nelson, PhD, chair of Developmental Medicine Research at Boston Children's Hospital, who is co-principal investigator of the study's administrative core.

Boston Children's and the other research sites will collect a wide range of data on pregnancy and fetal development; medical and family history; brain structure and function in infancy and early childhood; and each child's social, emotional, and cognitive development. Mothers and children will also provide biological samples (teeth, blood, hair) for studies of environmental exposures.

At Boston Children's, participants will be seen at the hospital's new Brain, Mind & Behavior Center. The team will make a special effort to include people from diverse backgrounds, including populations that are typically underrepresented in research.

"We want to understand the big picture and include the most diverse population possible," says Ellen Grant, MD, director of the Fetal-Neonatal Neuroimaging and Developmental Science Center at Boston Children's and co-principal investigator for the Boston Children's HBCD site with Michelle Bosquet Enlow, PhD, a psychologist in the department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. "We want to understand what factors are the most important to pay attention to, including factors that make some kids more resilient than others."

"We have known for some time that the early years of life are critical for shaping long-term developmental and health outcomes," says Bosquet Enlow, who studies how intergenerational effects such as maternal trauma history influence child mental and physical health and neurodevelopment. "This study will help us better understand which experiences are most important in influencing health and well-being."

Ultimately, the HBCD study aims to identify areas where policies and practices can best help protect children's neurodevelopment and health. Anonymized data from HBCD will be made freely available to the greater research community.

Formally launched in October, with recruitment to begin in 2022, the HBCD study is funded by 10 institutes and offices at the National Institutes of Health, and the Helping to End Addiction Long-term Initiative, or NIH HEAL Initiative, and is led by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

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