UC San Diego: NIH Award Advances the Study of Young and Developing Brains

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has awarded researchers at University of California San Diego approximately $30 million over five years to expand and deepen longitudinal studies of the developing brain in children.

Specifically, the funding will accelerate an ambitious effort to better understand how young brains and minds develop from infancy through early childhood and how some are affected by a variety of environmental factors.

Announced by the NIH and the National Institute on Drug Abuse last year, the HEALthy Brain and Child Development Study (HBCD) focuses on pregnancy and early childhood and how various exposures, such as prenatal substance exposure, trauma, environmental pollutants, as well as positive environments affect the long-term health of children.

Specific goals include optimizing brain imaging technologies and protocols, identifying key brain developmental windows and learning how to better predict and prevent future mental disorders and behavioral problems associated with environmental exposures.

“This is a groundbreaking study of normal and atypical brain developmental trajectories from day 0 to 10 years of age in a large sample of about 8,000 families,” said Christina Chambers, PhD, MPH, professor of pediatrics at UC San Diego School of Medicine and professor in the Herbert Wertheim School of Public Health and Human Longevity Science at UC San Diego.

Chambers is co-principal investigator of the administrative core for the nationwide study, along with Charles A. Nelson, III, PhD, professor of pediatrics, neuroscience and psychology at Harvard Medical School.

Anders Dale, PhD, professor of neuroscience and radiology and Director of the Center for Multimodal Imaging and Genetics at UC San Diego, will co-lead the HBCD Data Center, with Christopher Smyser, MD, associate professor of neurology and pediatrics at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, and Damien Fair, PhD, professor of pediatrics at University of Minnesota School of Medicine.

UC San Diego will serve as the HBCD study administrative core through the Center for Human Development, managing 25 study sites across the country, including one at UC San Diego School of Medicine.

Gretchen Bandoli, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Pediatrics at UC San Diego, and Sheila Gahagan, MD, MPH, professor of pediatrics and a developmental-behavioral pediatrician at UC San Diego Health, are co-principal Investigators of the site in San Diego.

Notably, the HBCD study is being designed to align with data currently being collected under the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) study, which was launched in 2015 to chronicle the brain development of more than 12,000 children for at least 10 years, starting at ages 9 to 10. UC San Diego is a lead institution in that effort.

The HBCD study is led by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and funded by 10 institutes and offices at the National Institutes of Health, and the Helping to End Addiction Long-term (HEAL) Initiative. The NIH HEAL Initiative, announced in 2018, seeks to speed scientific solutions to stem the national opioid public health crisis, funding hundreds of projects nationwide to better understand, manage and treat pain and to improve treatment for opioid misuse and addiction.

In 2019, the NIH committed $945 million to fund research programs and projects through the HEAL Initiative. Last year, 29 awards totaling $15.8 million were awarded in phase one of the HBCD study. In phase two, 27 awards totaling $37.1 million have been awarded.

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