Research News

$8 million NIH grant awarded to Vanderbilt researchers for study of infant/child brain development

Two Vanderbilt faculty have received an $8 million grant from the National Institutes of Health as part of a groundbreaking, multi-institutional overview of variables influencing infant and child brain development, including substance exposure.

Laurie Cutting
Laurie Cutting
Sarah Osmundson, MD
Sarah Osmundson, MD (Vanderbilt University)

Laurie Cutting, Patricia and Rodes Hart Professor of Special Education, Psychology and Human Development, Radiology and Pediatrics, and Sarah Osmundson, associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, will lead Vanderbilt’s participation in the HEALthy Brain and Child Development study.

The study, which will be conducted over at least 10 years with two dozen other institutions, aims to understand how pre- and post-natal exposures to substances and environments may alter developmental trajectories of children from birth.

“This study will be groundbreaking in terms of providing insights into environmental issues that impact children’s brain development from birth through early childhood and is unprecedented in its scope,” Cutting said. “The findings should yield multiple discoveries that could have important implications for policy, practice and early intervention.”

The overall NIH project will establish a large cohort beginning in pregnancy and follow the women and their children for at least 10 years. Researchers will collect data on pregnancy and fetal development; infant and early childhood structural and functional brain imaging; physical development; medical and family history; biospecimens; and social, emotional and cognitive development. Knowledge gained from this research will help identify factors that confer risk or resilience for known developmental effects of prenatal and postnatal exposure to certain drugs and environmental exposures, including risk for future substance use, mental disorders and other behavioral and developmental problems.

“Tracking mothers and infants from pregnancy to early childhood will fill important gaps regarding the impact of fetal exposures on brain and cognitive development,” Osmundson said.

The study also supports the creation of a template of normative neurodevelopment by assembling a large dataset from which researchers can analyze brain development in opioid-exposed and non-drug-exposed infants and children across a variety of demographics.

“I am deeply proud of my colleagues for earning this extraordinary recognition and opportunity from the NIH. Their work represents the superlative caliber of interdisciplinary research at Vanderbilt and VUMC,” said Vanderbilt University Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs C. Cybele Raver. “As someone who spent many years examining environmental influences on young children’s neurocognitive and behavioral development, I am confident that these contributions will advance multiple scientific fields including environmental health, pediatrics, and developmental science. Perhaps even more importantly, this research will likely have a significant impact on the health and wellbeing of our nation’s families and children for many years to come.”

The Vanderbilt group is one of twenty-five selected institutions with expertise in neuroimaging, neurophysiology, longitudinal clinical research, child development, substance exposure and addiction, ethical/legal issues and clinical care of high-risk infants/children.

Co-investigators from Vanderbilt and VUMC include Kathryn Humphreys, assistant professor of psychology and human development, Bennett Landman, chair of the department of electrical and computer engineering and professor of biomedical informatics, Jessica Young, associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology, Jessica Turnbull, assistant professor in the Center for Biomedical Ethics and Society, Dann Martin, assistant professor of radiology and radiological sciences, Seth Smith, associate professor of radiology and radiological sciences, and Sasha Key, research associate professor of hearing and speech sciences.

Within the NIH, the HBCD study is funded by 10 institutes and offices and by the Helping to End Addiction Long-termSM Initiative, led by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.