Penn State researchers are launching enrollment for the largest long-term study of early brain and child development in the U.S.
Penn State researchers aim to enroll 300 people, about 4% of the total cohort. The researchers will follow participants and their children from before birth through early childhood. To become a participant, interested individuals should visit the HBCD recruitment website.
According to co-multiple principal investigator Koraly Pérez-Edgar, the McCourtney Professor of Child Studies, Penn State was awarded a grant in 2021 from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which is expected to provide approximately $5.8 million over five years to become one of 28 recruitment sites for the project. HBCD at Penn State is co-led by Aleksandra Zgierska, the Jeanne L. and Thomas L. Leama, MD, Endowed Professor of Family and Community Medicine, Penn State College of Medicine.
“The effects of prenatal experiences, home environment and prenatal substance use on child health and brain development are largely unknown, even though pregnancy and early childhood are incredibly important periods of growth,” Pérez-Edgar said. “Findings from this cohort study will provide a template for understanding infant and child development and help untangle the impacts of exposures to substances and childhood environments during pregnancy on developmental trajectories.”
HBCD at Penn State has two sites, one at Penn State University Park and the other at Penn State’s College of Medicine in Hershey. Families can participate in the location that’s most convenient to them.
“Because the Penn State study site encompasses multiple campuses, we can recruit families from rural, semi-rural and urban communities across a large geographic area,” Zgierska said. “Rural pregnant women, in particular, are largely underserved.”
Megan Zinobile, project coordinator at the University Park site, is a social worker and former mental health clinician.
"The benefits that participants will receive while enrolled in this study are exciting because we can connect our research participants to a variety of resources and services throughout the community and broader central Pennsylvania region,” Zinobile said. “We are committed to the wellbeing of the families who choose to participate in this longitudinal study and are dedicated to helping families not only navigate the study but thrive between study visits. The connection we make with our participants prenatally is meaningful to us, and our team is thrilled to be a part of this amazing project, especially watching babies grow and develop from newborns into toddlerhood.”
The project is part of a broader National Institutes of Health Helping to End Addiction Long-term Initiative, or NIH HEAL Initiative, to learn, in part, more about the long-term effects of prenatal exposure to opioids on infant and child development. In addition, it is expected to identify key developmental windows during which both harmful and protective environmental factors have the most influence on later neurodevelopmental outcomes.
Information gathered during pregnancy and at various points throughout early childhood will include brain development, social, emotional and cognitive development, physical growth and family history surveys.
The first phase of the study to plan and design the approach began several years ago at locations across the country. Zgierska was awarded a Phase I HBCD grant during her previous tenure at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.
Working with Pérez-Edgar, who is also an associate director of Penn State’s Social Science Research Institute, the team successfully competed to become a collaborator on this birth cohort study.
Other Penn State co-investigators on the project are Danielle Downs, professor of kinesiology and obstetrics and gynecology; Rina Eiden, professor of psychology; Jenae Neiderhiser, distinguished professor of psychology and human development and family studies; Michele Diaz, professor of psychology and linguistics; Sangam Kanekar, professor of diagnostic radiology, neuroradiology and radiology; Dara Babinski, clinical psychologist and assistant professor of psychiatry; Sarah Ramirez, assistant professor of family and community medicine, Jaimie Maines, assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology; Tammy Corr, neonatologist and associate professor of pediatrics; and Wen-Jan Tuan, assistant professor of family and community medicine.
HBCD is funded by through the NIH HEAL Initiative and numerous institutes and offices at NIH, and it is led by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Penn State’s work is supported by NIH grant number U01 DA055361. Additional funding and support are provided by various Penn State units. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of NIH.