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College Park, MD—University of Maryland researchers are part of a multi-institutional team working on a national study called the ECHO program, which is designed to understand early environmental influences on child health and development.
The National Institutes of Health awarded $17.1 million to Avera Research Institute’s Center for Pediatric and Community Research in South Dakota, who is partnering with researchers from the University of Maryland and Columbia University to investigate a range of early influences on children’s health. Nathan A. Fox, a University of Maryland Distinguished University Professor, received an award of more than $650,000 for work on the Environmental influences on Child Health Outcomes (ECHO) program.
The broad goal of the ECHO program is to assess how physical, chemical, biological, social and behavioral exposures impact child development. Researchers will examine environmental exposures—such as tobacco smoke, allergens, drug abuse, and chemical toxins—and development from the prenatal period through childhood and adolescence.
In South Dakota, Dr. Fox’s research team, which has deep expertise in brain assessment techniques, is helping determine how environmental exposures affect executive functions and brain functioning in early and middle childhood.
“Everyone is vulnerable to environmental exposures, but prenatal exposure and immediate postnatal exposure affect the developing brain in a most significant way,” Dr. Fox said. “Brain architecture is built over time. Skill begets skill. This begins in the prenatal period and continues through the first years of life. Exposure to toxins can cause perturbations in brain wiring that can have long lasting effects.”
The ECHO program brings together existing research projects that track cohorts of infants and children as well as their health outcomes, and incorporates those projects into an initiative that will include more than 50,000 children from diverse backgrounds across the United States. The South Dakota-based research project is one of 31 grantees awarded funds by the NIH for this stage of the ECHO program, which follows a two-year planning period during which experts developed best practices for the program.
Among other things, researchers will examine how environmental exposures like air pollution and substance abuse during fetal development alter child development, including rates of asthma and learning disabilities.
“Understanding how environmental influences affect child development is essential knowledge and holds important implications for health and policy interventions,” said UMD College of Education Dean Jennifer King Rice.
“As we develop more concrete scientific information on the links between early exposures and developmental consequences in children, hopefully it will inform policies and the development and timing of evidence-based interventions,” Dr. Fox said.
Dr. Fox is a faculty member in the Department of Human Development and Quantitative Methodology at the University of Maryland College of Education.