University of Auckland leads international study researching early childhood brain development

An International consortium led by Professor Sir Peter Gluckman of the University of Auckland has been awarded a multi-million dollar, multi-year contract as part of a programme aimed at providing major breakthroughs to predict critical aspects of children’s brain development.

The project, funded by Wellcome Leap as part of the 1kD program, is intended to develop more precise methods of early screening. This will allow children who need intervention to be identified earlier for appropriate interventions and thus achieve better outcomes. It was awarded the largest single research contract ever awarded to the University of Auckland.

The project will study the development of self-regulation and executive function in the first three years of life with the aim to develop accurate, scalable, early screening methods to predict executive function and responses to intervention.

Professor Sir Peter Gluckman explains the importance of executive function.

“Executive function is the critical set of brain functions which allow individuals to plan, pay attention, to learn and to self- regulate. They are the most important functions in determining success in schooling and in life. As children approach their third birthday, their level of executive functioning will greatly contribute to how successful they will be in negotiating the opportunities and obstacles they face in life,” he said.

“Well-developed executive function improves a child’s chances for school success, lifelong physical, neural, and mental health; and underpins greater productivity and prosperity. If the foundations of executive function are not well developed in childhood it has significant consequences.”

Professor Sir Peter Gluckman

A Dunedin Multidisciplinary Study led by Professor Poulton has shown that children with underdeveloped executive function at age three represent about 20 percent of the population but make up nearly 80 percent of adults who are likely to require some form of societal or economic assistance, increasing the pressure on mental health services.

The Wellcome LEAP 1kD program sought breakthrough proposals to fund accelerated work to understand the mechanisms of and influences on executive function development and to address the challenge of early screening, and intervention. The teams are undertaking research across basic neuroscience, engineering and technology development, as well as with a clinical focus. In total, the Wellcome LEAP 1kD program involves ten international teams. .

The Gluckman-led consortium will conduct advanced studies of children’s brain development integrated across Singapore (Professor Michael Meaney, Professor Sir Peter Gluckman, Dr Anne Rifkin Graboi), Boston (Professor Charles Nelson), New Zealand (Professor Sir Peter Gluckman, Richie Poulton, and Justin O’Sullivan) and Bangladesh (Professor Terrence Forrester and Dr Haque). The studies include using advanced brain electrophysiology and related measure for early screening and prediction, and a variety of nutritional, educational and parental support interventions. Other components of the work explore factors which affecting the vulnerability of infants to the impairment of executive function such as social, nutritional factors and the gut microbiome.

In New Zealand the work builds off joint studies already underway in a partnership between the Liggins institute and the University of Otago by Professor Sir Peter Gluckman, Professor Richie Poulton, Professor Elaine Reese, Professor Stuart McNaughton and others to explore new ways of identifying children who will respond to interventions. This work had already received some seed funding from Wellcome LEAP.

A further aspect of the work focuses on nutritional factors and the microbiome which may play a role in affecting brain development and this is led by Professor O’Sullivan of the Liggins institute and Professor Forrester for the University of West indies. All the studies on the four sites are integrated to use common advanced neurophysiological assessments and related measures, such as eye tracking, while different approaches to intervention are conducted across the sites.

The consortium will work in close cooperation with the other funded teams.

Wellcome LEAP, seed funded by the Wellcome Trust, is a global ARPA for health. It is an organization that aims to deliver critical breakthroughs in health at speed and scale. This is not based on traditional grant applications but brings together multi-disciplinary, global teams to solve problems that they cannot solve alone.