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OHSU joins largest long-term study of early brain, child development

Research team emphasizes diversity, representation as key recruitment priorities
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As a part of the NIH HEALthy Brain and Child Development (HBCD) study, an OHSU research team will recruit 300 pregnant people and follow their infants over the first decade of life to better understand the factors that impact brain development. Senior research assistant Samuel Carpenter places MRI equipment onto Benjamin Newman as mom, Alice Graham, MS, Ph.D., and Elinor Sullivan, Ph.D., right, look on. Sullivan and Graham demonstrate how they use a neuroimaging to discover child development problems early. (OHSU/Christine Torres Hicks)
As a part of the NIH HEALthy Brain and Child Development, or HBCD, study, an OHSU research team will recruit 300 pregnant people and follow their infants for the first decade of life to better understand the factors that impact brain development. (OHSU/Christine Torres Hicks)

A team of researchers at Oregon Health & Science University has begun enrollment for the National Institutes of Health’s HEALthy Brain and Child Development Study, the largest long-term study of early brain and child development in the United States.

This multisite project will identify and follow a group of pregnant individuals and their children from pregnancy through childhood. The goal of the study is to assess how exposure to substances and environmental factors, both before and after birth, may affect brain development.

Alice Graham, Ph.D.
Alice Graham, Ph.D. (OHSU)

“Until now, there hasn’t been a study large or comprehensive enough to explain how exposure to substances and environmental factors can influence early brain development,” says OHSU principal investigator Alice Graham, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychiatry in the OHSU School of Medicine. “The findings of this study will inform interventions that may mitigate adverse outcomes, leading to healthier development for children and families.”

Following OHSU’s invitation to join the study in 2021, the research team conducted a pilot study in which various recruitment processes and data collection methods were tested to ensure the best study outcomes. This required collaboration among a multidisciplinary team representing OHSU’s departments of Psychiatry, Family Medicine, Pediatrics, Obstetrics and Gynecology, Internal Medicine and Geriatrics, and the Center for Mental Health Innovation.

OHSU is one of 28 institutions nationwide recruiting families to participate in the study, which aims to enroll approximately 7,500 participants from across the United States. After launching, Graham and colleagues hope to enroll 300 pregnant individuals in their second trimester and their infants to join the study at OHSU -- 25% of the study group will be individuals who are currently using substances or in treatment for substance use disorder.

Elinor Sullivan, Ph.D., hair half-up/down, smiling atop stairs on Marquam Hill with Portland in the background.
Elinor Sullivan, Ph.D. (OHSU)

Elinor Sullivan, Ph.D., associate professor of psychiatry in the OHSU School of Medicine and one of the principal investigators at the OHSU site, emphasizes that representation is a key priority for recruitment and enrollment. The research team is seeking a diverse cohort who represent different races, ethnicities, education and income levels.

“Diversity among our participants is crucial. If the sample for our study is not representative of the population, we risk introducing biases into the science, and, subsequently, into the polices that may be implemented based on that science,” Sullivan says. “We know certain populations are already vastly underrepresented and underserved in our health care system. Our goal in this work is to support healthy brain development for all children and families, no matter their race, ethnicity or socioeconomic status.”

Knowing that individuals who are using substances or in treatment for substance use disorder while pregnant are often shamed and stigmatized, the research team hopes to help some of those people have better experiences with the health system and connect with them in positive ways.

“We’re excited about working with the participants, seeing their children develop, and making this a positive experience for them,” Graham says. “We have a wonderful and dedicated staff who are ready to welcome people into this study and build relationships with them over time.”

More information about HBCD-OHSU is available on the study’s website.

The HBCD Study is funded through the Helping to End Addiction Long-term Initiative, or NIH HEAL Initiative, and by numerous institutes and offices at the National Institutes of Health, and is led by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. OHSU’s work is supported by NIH grant number 1U01DA055363-01. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.

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; Bill Rooney, Ph.D. associate professor of behavioral neuroscience.

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