Mother holding infant

University of Minnesota Receives NIH Funding to Study Early Child Brain Development

MINNEAPOLIS/ST. PAUL (10/5/2021) — The University of Minnesota has received two grants totaling $26 million from the National Institutes of Health for research on the impact of substance exposure during pregnancy on child brain and behavioral development. The Masonic Institute for the Developing Brain (MIDB) will serve as a key data collection, management, and analysis site for the HEALthy Brain and Child Development (HBCD) Study, a large, multi-institution project with 25 study sites across the country. 

The first grant, totaling $6 million for the first five years of the study, establishes the U of M as one of 25 data collection sites for the HBCD Study, which will enroll about 7,500 pregnant people nationwide. Researchers will collect data on substance use and other risk and protective factors during the pregnancy, and then study the impact on brain and behavioral development of the children at various time points from  birth through early childhood. 

The HBCD Study was launched partly in response to the national opioid crisis and the rapid increase in the number of newborns with neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS), a drug withdrawal syndrome at birth caused by the use of prescription or illicit opioids during pregnancy. The rise in NAS rates in Minnesota during the current opioid crisis has been above the national average, increasing 10-fold in just the most recent decade alone, from 1 in 1,000 births in 2009 to 1 in 100 births in 2019, with rates increasing fastest in rural Minnesota. Newborns with NAS generally require 2-3 week long hospitalization and little is yet known about the long-term consequences on children. 

The first grant will be led by Sylia Wilson, an assistant professor in the Institute of Child Development, Anna Zilverstand, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and member of the Medical Discovery Team on Addiction, and Michael Georgieff, co-director for the Masonic Institute for the Developing Brain (MIDB). It will bring together researchers from multiple colleges and units at the U of M, including the College of Education and Human Development, College of Liberal Arts, School of Public Health, the Medical School, the Office of the Vice President for Research and Research Computing, and the MIDB. Researchers will also collaborate with a network of more than 20 birth and addiction treatment centers across Minnesota to collect data, increasing access to the study for rural and traditionally underrepresented populations.

“This is a landmark study that will yield new insights into our understanding of the developing brain and the factors that promote adaptive development during the critical first years of life,” Wilson said. “We are thrilled to collaborate with researchers across the University and in the national consortium, and within Minnesota communities, as we launch this important research.”

The second grant, totaling $20 million for the first five years, establishes a fully integrated, collaborative data analytic infrastructure for the HBCD Study. This HBCD data core will support the entire 25-site consortium in the collection of the large HBCD dataset and enable researchers to analyze brain development in substance-exposed and non-substance-exposed infants and children. The second grant is led by Damien Fair, co-director for the MIDB, along with collaborators Christopher Smyser from Washington University in St. Louis and Anders Dale from the University of California San Diego.

“The Masonic Institute of the Developing Brain is playing a central role in the efforts as a ‘one stop shop’ for families enrolled in the study. Its infrastructure, analytical, and informatics expertise is also being used for study-wide data management and dissemination,” Fair said.

The HBCD Study aims to provide a template of typical neurodevelopment in order to assess how prenatal and postnatal 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.

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 substances and environments, including risk for future substance use, mental disorders, and other behavioral and developmental problems. The HBCD Study will be one of the most detailed studies of early brain development ever conducted.

The HBCD Study is funded by 10 institutes and offices at the National Institutes of Health, and the Helping to End Addiction Long-termSM Initiative, or NIH HEAL InitiativeSM, and is led by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

This story was originally published on Oct. 5, 2021 by the University of Minnesota

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