The Family Life Project joins NIH-funded ECHO initiative

In 2015, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) pioneered a collaborative study hoping to pave the way to creating healthier environments for growing kids. This initiative, called the Environmental Influences on Child Health Outcomes (ECHO), aims to understand the effects of environmental factors — chemical and psychological — on children’s health and development. NIH researchers are particularly interested in assessing specific aspects of pediatric health, including upper and lower airways, obesity, pre-, peri-, and postnatal outcomes, and neurodevelopment, as well as the overall development of positive health outcomes. The collaboration brings together over 70 existing cohorts already enrolled in longitudinal studies across the country. In doing so, NIH hopes to build a standardized core of data — a data set large enough to tackle big questions about the early childhood environmental factors that determine major health outcomes.

Involvement in a collaborative study, like ECHO, allows for the associated research teams to maintain funding for their existing research projects while also contributing to the larger-scale data collection efforts of the overall project. For ECHO, collaboration allows NIH researchers to capitalize on existing longitudinal pediatric studies, grouping cohort data and standardizing data collection nationwide. This effort will bring together information from over 50,000 children and families from different backgrounds.  

The Family Life Project (FLP), a longitudinal study initiated in 2003 and lead by researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Pennsylvania State University, and NYU’s Neuroscience and Education Lab, joined the ECHO initiative in 2015. Doing so granted them funding to continue the project until at least 2023. FLP’s investigators hope their research will help to clarify how environmental factors influence child development in rural communities. In order to determine this, the researchers have been diligently following a cohort of families living in and around small towns in predominantly rural counties in North Carolina and Pennsylvania for the past 15 years. The FLP team meets with participating families regularly to develop an understanding of the environments in which they live, the challenges they face, and how their children are faring emotionally, physically, and academically.

Though FLP has now joined ECHO, the project’s research intentions remain the same. FLP investigators are primarily interested in the effects of early-life stress on the development of self-regulation in childhood. However, their data sets are large and far-reaching, and allow them to address questions about language development, school achievement, and various other aspects of physical and mental health throughout childhood and adolescence. Receiving ECHO funding will allow FLP to follow its cohort through adolescence and into early adulthood. As the participants grow older, FLP researchers will begin to explore the teens’ social lives, risk behaviors, and psychopathology.

The first two years of ECHO funding (2016-2018) gave the FLP team and their collaborators time to prepare for implementation of the ECHO-wide data collection protocol and to pool retrospective cohort data for ECHO’s analyses. 2019 will mark the first round of prospective data collection for ECHO cohorts, and the 16th data collection time point for FLP families. FLP’s involvement in ECHO means that these visits will look a bit different for FLP families than they have in previous years. This year, the families will be asked to attend a clinic visit, in lieu of having researchers visit them in their homes, where data collectors will be able to gather a larger variety of biospecimens including blood, urine, saliva, hair, stool and toenail clippings. Similar to previous data collection visits, the researchers will also conduct interviews and other tests of mental, physical, and social-emotional health. This data will continue to inform FLP investigators’ ongoing questions about child health and development, as well as contribute to ECHO’s nationwide data set.

Investigations such as ECHO and FLP undertake their research in a bid to improve child health for every family in the country, regardless of location and income-level. By developing a thorough understanding of how environmental and psycho-social factors can alter child development (both positively and negatively), longitudinal research provides the necessary information to instigate change. The findings of long-term studies of development, such as these, go on to promote new policies, regulations, and interventions that will best help children and young adults find happiness, health, and success.

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