Study to measure effects of early environment on mental and physical health

A child’s development can be affected by a number of factors, including biology and the environment. As part of a new, multi-institutional collaboration, Penn State researchers will focus on understanding the effects early environmental exposures have on children’s mental and physical health.

Jenae Neiderhiser, professor of psychology at Penn State, along with Leslie Leve, professor and associate dean for research and faculty development at the University of Oregon, and Jody Ganiban, professor of clinical/developmental psychology at George Washington University, serve as principal investigators for the project, being funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Environmental Influences on Child Health Outcomes (ECHO) program. This is one of 35 ECHO Pediatric Cohort awards being funded by NIH with the goal of enrolling more than 50,000 children from diverse racial, geographic and socioeconomic backgrounds to become part of a large consortium to understand early risk impacts.

According to Neiderhiser, their work will draw on a wealth of already collected data from the Early Growth and Development Study (EGDS), an adoption study of birth parents, adoptive parents, and adopted children that examines how heredity, prenatal environment, and rearing environment – including family, peer, and other relationships - affect children’s adjustment.

“EGDS contains data from families all over the US and includes measurements of family social environment, the prenatal environment, medical records from birth parents and the adopted child, and DNA and salivary cortisol samples,” said Neiderhiser. “Our project is unique because we are able to distinguish genetic from environmental influences. At birth, the children are placed into a rearing environment that includes genetically unrelated parents.”

The first phase of the project will include a two-year planning period, during which the researchers will work closely with other members of the ECHO consortium and NIH to design the data collection phase of the project. The first phase will also require Neiderhiser, Leve, and Ganiban to reconnect with families in the EGDS by conducting preliminary analysis and assessments.

The researchers will also recruit additional family members from both birth and adoptive families, resulting in a total sample of over 1,000 children and over 900 sibling pairs. “A new and exciting part of our planned data collection is to add biological and adoptive siblings to the EGDS sample. Including siblings will allow us to compare siblings who are living together in the biological home to those who are living apart and to compare siblings who are genetically related and unrelated. This adds to our ability to study how heredity and environment work together to influence children’s development,” Neiderhiser explained.

While the main focus of the project is on genetic and environmental effects on mental health and development, the researchers will also be looking at how these factors affect physical health concerns, including obesity and asthma. “It will be interesting to tease apart heritable and environmental effects to clarify environmental influences on child health and development on such a large scale, which has never been done before,” Neiderhiser explained.

The research team will also collaborate with a geographic information systems team based out of Penn State’s Social Science Research Institute’s Computational Analysis Core to develop a geocoding system of neighborhood-level stressors important to child development and health.

Neiderhiser anticipates the large sample of diverse sibling pairings in EGDS specifically, but also across the entire ECHO consortium, will provide a rich data set that will lead to identifying the specific mechanisms and processes that lead to emergence of health disorders. “We hope that our data, combined with other ECHO-funded projects, will lead to improved prevention efforts to minimize health disorders and promote healthy development.”

Seed funding for Neiderhiser’s previous work was provided by Penn State’s Social Science Research Institute.