UNC Awarded $8.2-million Grant to Study Brain, Behavior Development in Children

Weili Lin, PhD, Director of the Biomedical Research Imaging Center (BRIC) and the Dixie Lee Boney Soo Distinguished Professor of Neurological Medicine, Professor and Vice Chair of Research in the Department of Radiology, and Professor of Neurology, Biomedical Engineering, and School of Pharmacy and Karen Grewen, PhD, Professor and Associate Chair of Research in Psychiatry, will co-lead this five-year project, as part of the ‘HEALthy Brain and Child Development (HBCD) Study.’

Their UNC project has total funding of $8,242,067 for the first 5 years and is one of 25 sites selected across the nation. To accomplish this exciting yet challenging study, a multi-disciplinary team comprising of faculty from Departments of Radiology, Psychiatry, Pediatric and Social Medicine in the UNC School of Medicine; from the UNC Department of Psychology and Neuroscience in the UNC College of Art and Science; and from the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health. The UNC site also includes collaborative teams from Wake Forest University led by Jeff Shenberger, MD, and Duke University led by Rebecca Lumsden, MD, to enroll mothers and infants across a broad swath of North Carolina, and to encompass a wide range of geographic and socioeconomic diversity.

The HEALthy Brain and Child Development (HBCD) Study will establish a large cohort of pregnant people and follow them and their children for up to 10 years. Findings from this cohort will provide a template of normative neurodevelopment in order to assess how prenatal and perinatal 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.

The longitudinal study will collect data on pregnancy and fetal development; infant and early childhood structural and functional brain imaging; anthropometrics; medical history; family history; biospecimens; and social, emotional and cognitive development. 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 drugs and environmental exposures, including risk for future substance use, mental health disorders, and other behavioral and developmental problems.

This award is part of the Phase II HBCD Study, in which a fully integrated, collaborative infrastructure will support the collection of a large dataset that will enable researchers to analyze brain development in opioid-exposed and non-drug-exposed infants and children across a variety of regions and demographics.

HBCD 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.

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