Steinhardt Receives Major NIH Grant to Study How Stress and Chemical Exposures Influence Brain Development and Obesity

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has awarded a $5.9 million, two-year grant to Clancy Blair, professor of applied psychology at NYU Steinhardt, to study how exposure to environmental factors influences children’s health. The award is part of a seven-year initiative called Environmental influences on Child Health Outcomes (ECHO), which investigates how a range of environmental factors in early development – from conception through early childhood – affects the health of children and adolescents.

Experiences during sensitive developmental windows, including around the time of conception, later in pregnancy, and during infancy and early childhood, can have long-lasting effects on the health of children. These experiences encompass a broad range of exposures, from air pollution and chemicals in our neighborhoods, to societal factors such as stress, to individual behaviors like sleep and diet.

Blair’s work will build upon his research through the Family Life Project to investigate ways in which adverse environmental exposures – psychosocial as well as chemical – early in life affect children.

The large, longitudinal study follows a sample of 1,292 children and their families, who live in and around small towns in Pennsylvania and North Carolina in counties with high poverty rates. The Family Life Project began following the children and their families when the children were born in 2003-2004.

The researchers have gathered a wealth of information at regular intervals since the children’s births, including home visit questionnaires and interviews, school data, health records, and blood and saliva samples to look at stress, immune function, and other biological markers. A main focus of the project thus far has looked at how stress early in life, such as violence in the home, affects children’s brain development in the areas of self-regulation, ADHD, and learning disability.

With the ECHO funding, the researchers will expand their work to look at obesity risk, both looking back at health information collected early in the children’s lives, as well as collecting new data during health visits during the teenage years to gather measures of immune and metabolic function. The researchers will also look at environmental exposure to chemicals, including tobacco smoke and lead in blood levels.

“Obesity risk and neurodevelopment are highly interrelated and profoundly influenced by exposure to stress and other environmental factors,” says Blair. “This funding will amplify and enhance our focus on how different factors affect neurodevelopment and obesity outcomes, and provides a unique opportunity to integrate this landmark study of an underserved, rural population with other research through the ECHO program.”

The ECHO program will build the infrastructure and capacity to support multiple longitudinal studies – including studies by Blair and by Leonardo Trasande, associate professor in pediatrics, environmental medicine, and population health at NYU Langone, who also received an ECHO grant – that extend and expand existing studies of mothers and their children.

The Family Life Project is a partnership between NYU, the University of Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Penn State. The ECHO grant (1UG3OD023332) will be administered by NYU’s Institute of Human Development and Social Change.