University of Pittsburgh
September 22, 2016

University of Pittsburgh Awarded $14 Million Grant to Study Preconception Effects of Stress on Neurodevelopment

Study is part of NIH’s $157 million ECHO program
Contact:  412-624-4147

PITTSBURGH—The effects of stress on childhood development during gestation are well studied, but a team of University of Pittsburgh researchers will examine those effects preconception, thanks to a grant from the National Institutes of Health of approximately $14 million over seven years. The grant is part of the NIH’s $157 million Environmental influences on Child Health Outcomes (ECHO) program, which was announced yesterday.

“Our goal is to test the hypothesis that preconception environmental-stress exposure will predict deficits in offspring neurodevelopment through alterations in the mother’s capacity to regulate stress during pregnancy,” said Alison E. Hipwell, professor of psychiatry and psychology at Pitt. “However, we also expect that the mother’s nutrition status prior to pregnancy will buffer these negative effects on offspring outcomes.”

The study will build on the Pittsburgh Girls Study, a longitudinal study of 2,450 urban-living young women for whom the timing and chronicity of multiple stress exposures such as housing and family stress and exposure to violence have been robustly measured for the past 16 years spanning childhood through early adulthood. Hipwell has been integrally involved in the scientific direction and day-to-day operations of the Pittsburgh Girls Study for the past 15 years, first as a co-investigator and more recently as co-principal investigator.

Biomarkers of preconception stress exposure and nutrition will be assessed in early adulthood. Study participants who become pregnant over the period of award will complete three psychophysiological assessments of stress regulation during pregnancy, and placental function will be assessed. The children’s neurodevelopment will then be assessed across the first three years of life.

“The findings from this study will advance knowledge on important periods of vulnerability to optimize prenatal health and child growth and development, especially among those living in stressful environments,” said Hipwell.

Projects in the ECHO program will investigate how exposure to environmental factors in early development—from preconception through early childhood—influences the health of children and adolescents.

“I’m very excited to work with many of our nation’s best scientists to tackle vital unanswered questions about child health and development,” said ECHO Program Director Matthew W. Gillman. “I believe we have the right formula of cohorts, clinical trials, and supporting resources, including a range of new tools and measures, to help figure out which factors may allow children to achieve the best health outcomes over their lifetimes.”

“Every baby should have the best opportunity to remain healthy and thrive throughout childhood,” said NIH Director Francis S. Collins. “ECHO will help us better understand the factors that contribute to optimal health in children.”

Hipwell and the University of Chicago’s Kate E. Keenan, the study’s co-principal investigators, will be joined by Pitt School of Medicine colleagues Susan Perlman, assistant professor of psychiatry, and Stephanie Stepp, associate professor of psychiatry and psychology; Theodore Huppert, assistant professor of radiology with a dual appointment in bioengineering in the Swanson School of Engineering; and Hyagriv Simhan, professor of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive sciences and chief of the Division of Maternal-Fetal Medicine. Robert Krafty, associate professor of biostatistics in Pitt’s Graduate School of Public Health, rounds out the research team.