Investigating the Impact of Environment on Maternal and Child Health and Developmental Disabilities

What impact do factors such as environment, diet, stress, medication, and social factors have on a pregnant individual’s journey and subsequently, on their child’s health and development?

A new two-year study by researchers at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago seeks to explore how various environmental aspects impact children’s health and development, particularly focusing on children with disabilities. Recently receiving a $5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the team will join the Environmental influences on Child Health Outcomes (ECHO) Program, a national consortium dedicated to understanding how early-life conditions affect children’s health trajectories. While other participants in ECHO concentrate on issues like asthma and cardiometabolic health, the Northwestern and Lurie Children’s team will specifically investigate the experiences of individuals with disabilities, a group often overlooked in medical studies.

With an extensive cohort in ECHO focusing on child health, this study aims to extend its insights to their mothers, exploring the interconnected health dynamics between mother and child. The research will target a broad and diverse group of pregnant individuals, including those frequently underrepresented in medical research.

Principal investigator Dr. Lynn Yee, Thomas J. Watkins Memorial Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Feinberg School of Medicine, emphasizes the potential of this study to inform future strategies for enhancing maternal and child health outcomes through the knowledge gained from ECHO.

This next phase in the ECHO program represents a significant shift towards understanding the complexities of maternal health and its implications on child well-being, starting from before birth. Depending on the findings from the initial years, the project may receive extended funding, potentially reaching a total of $32 million over seven years.

Comprehensive Study of Children with and without Disabilities

The study will take a comprehensive approach, including children with and without disabilities, identified as they grow. The researchers aim to include a variety of mothers, especially those at higher risk due to genetic or other factors, to eventually form a cohort that represents a broad spectrum of children’s developmental conditions.

The $5 million grant, titled “Enriching ECHO Cohorts with High-risk Pregnancies and Children with Disabilities (Enriching ECHO),” aims to enhance disability inclusivity in the ECHO research by examining a wide range of disabilities, from neurodevelopmental disorders like ADHD and autism to other conditions. The study will also draw from existing data on ECHO participants with disabilities and collaborate with other ECHO sites for further scientific research, such as studies on asthma or the impact of environmental toxins.

Recruitment for the study will begin in January 2024, targeting pregnant individuals before their 20th week of gestation from specific medical centers. This inclusive approach aims to enroll a diverse population, including those with detected prenatal complications, who are often excluded from such research.

With a seven-year follow-up plan, the study aims to provide comprehensive data on the women and their children, offering insights into early complications as well as typical development patterns. This approach will allow the researchers to uncover developmental disabilities as the children grow, providing valuable data for future interventions and support.

Exploring Key Health Aspects and Positive Outcomes

Initially, the research will focus on the health of the placenta, looking for signs of complications or conditions that might indicate a higher likelihood of developmental issues like autism. The team will collect various biological samples throughout pregnancy to study stress levels, environmental exposures, and other factors that may impact health outcomes.

The study won’t just focus on health challenges; it also aims to identify environmental and personal factors associated with positive health outcomes. By studying both high-risk individuals and those with typical pregnancies, the researchers hope to uncover ways to optimize health and understand what contributes to a healthy pregnancy and child development.

Through this comprehensive approach, the study aims to provide a deeper understanding of the complex interplay between environmental factors, maternal health, and child development, potentially informing future health strategies and interventions.

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