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NIH taps OHSU to study impacts of substance use, environment on the developing brain

Longitudinal, multisite project to monitor neurodevelopmental outcomes of children exposed to substances in utero
A newborn baby holding mother's hand.
As a part of the NIH HEALthy Brain and Child Development (HBCD) study, an OHSU research team will monitor neurodevelopmental outcomes of children exposed to substances, other environmental factors in utero. (Getty Images)

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of pregnant individuals diagnosed with opioid use disorder in the United States increased more than 130% between 2010 and 2017.  While it is understood that the first few years of a child’s life are important for brain growth and development, the impacts of prenatal exposure to opioids -- and other substances -- on the developing brain are unknown.

To help expand this understanding, a multidisciplinary team of researchers from the Oregon Health & Science University departments of Psychiatry, Family Medicine, Pediatrics, Obstetrics and Gynecology,  Internal Medicine and Geriatrics, and the Center for ADHD Research have been invited to join the National Institutes of Health’s HEALthy Brain and Child Development (HBCD) Study. This multisite project will identify and follow a cohort of pregnant persons affected by the opioid crisis, and their children, from birth through early childhood.

The OHSU team will work collaboratively with community partners, including Health Share of Oregon’s Project Nurture, CODA Treatment Recovery and the Mental Health and Addiction Association of Oregon, to enroll participants and collect data about medical and family history, as well as pregnancy and fetal development and social, emotional and cognitive functioning. Study sites across the U.S., including OHSU, will also conduct infant and early childhood structural and functional brain imaging.

Image of Elinor Sullivan, Ph.D. at OHSU. A woman with brown hair smiling.
Elinor Sullivan, Ph.D., (OHSU)

“Study findings will help us to identify a baseline of normative neurodevelopment that will assess how exposure to substances and environmental factors, before and after birth, may change traditional developmental trajectories,” says Elinor Sullivan, Ph.D., associate professor of psychiatry and one of the principal investigators of the OHSU site.

According to Sullivan, this insight will help to identify risk factors for known developmental effects of prenatal exposure, including future substance use, cognitive disorders, or other behavioral and developmental conditions, as well as factors that contribute to resilience.

image of Alice Graham, Ph.D., at OHSU. A woman with her brown hair pulled back, smiling, and wearing glasses.
Alice Graham, Ph.D., (OHSU)

“The ability to better understand and predict these factors means an opportunity for prevention,” says OHSU principal investigator Alice Graham, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychiatry in the School of Medicine. “The more we are able to learn from collected data, the more opportunities we will have to intervene early to help shift potentially impacted children toward a path of health and well-being.”

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 Initiativeand is led by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. OHSU’s work is supported by NIH grant number 1U01DA055363-01.

In addition to principal investigators Sullivan and Graham, the OHSU site includes principal investigator Bonnie Nagel, Ph.D., professor of psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience; and, co-investigators Hanna Gustafsson, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychiatry; Joel Nigg, Ph.D., professor of psychiatry and director of the ADHD Center for Research; Jamie Lo, M.D., associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology (perinatology and maternal-fetal medicine); Todd Korthuis, M.D., Ph.D., professor of medicine (general internal medicine and geriatrics); Kristen Mackiewicz Seghete, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychiatry; Cynthia McEvoy, M.D., M.C.R., professor of pediatrics (neonatology); Monica Rincon, M.D., M.C.R., senior research associate of obstetrics and gynecology; and, Kea Parker, M.D., assistant professor of family medicine.

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