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Emory receives $5.7 million NIH award to join national study on early brain development

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Jennifer Johnson McEwen
Director of Communications Emory Brain Health Center

Emory School of Medicine researchers have been awarded a five-year, $5.7 million grant to lead Emory’s role as one of 25 sites in NIH’s HEALthy Brain and Child Development (HBCD) study.

The Emory Brain Health Center has been selected as one of 25 sites to participate in a landmark National Institutes of Health (NIH) study to help provide new insights into healthy brain development and behavior from birth through early childhood.  

Emory School of Medicine researchers Claire Coles, PhD, and Julie Kable, PhD, of Emory’s Center for Maternal Substance Abuse and Child Development (MSACD), have been awarded a five-year, $5.7 million grant to lead Emory’s role in NIH’s HEALthy Brain and Child Development (HBCD) Study. The study will use state-of-the-art neuroimaging and developmental neuroscience to analyze brain development in opioid-exposed and non-drug-exposed infants and children across a variety of regions and demographics.

Emory’s grant is one of 25 NIH-funded awards totaling $37.1 million for Phase II of the HBCD Study. It 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.

The Phase II HBCD study will establish a very large cohort of between 6,000 and 8,000 mother-child pairs and follow them for up to 10 years. Findings from this cohort will provide a template of normative neurodevelopment in order to assess how prenatal and perinatal exposures to substances and environments may alter developmental trajectories. This research infrastructure can also be leveraged for urgent health needs, such as the current impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on development, or future health and environmental crises.

“This groundbreaking study in size and scope will shed critical light on the many ways the environment can impact brain development,” says Coles, Emory professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. “We hope to learn more about the factors that present the greatest risks, as well as the ones that contribute to resilience in children over the course of their early years.”

The longitudinal data collected from the study will include pregnancy and fetal development; infant and early childhood structural and functional brain imaging; anthropometrics; medical history; 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.

“The data and knowledge we will garner through this study has the potential to profoundly add to research literature and impact clinical practice for many years,” says Kable, Emory assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences. “Emory’s Maternal Substance Abuse and Child Development Center continues to be a leader in finding new ways of supporting and providing assistance to mothers and their children, and this award will ensure that.”

Emory’s Center for MSACD was originally created in 1981 as the Fetal Alcohol Screening Project, a program for screening pregnant women for alcohol use to help identify the extent of the problem in Georgia and create methods of prevention. Currently, the center fulfills several roles in Georgia by sponsoring clinical, prevention and research programs, as well as providing training, workshops and other informational services concerning prenatal exposure to alcohol, nicotine, illicit drugs and prescription drugs.

Phase I of the HBCD Study concluded an 18-month planning period during which awardees considered the experimental design and feasibility of approaches. Awardees conducted multisite pilot and feasibility studies addressing five key areas that are crucial for the Phase II study.

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