UF team joins national study of brain development in infants, children

University of Florida researchers have joined a national study to understand brain development and behavioral health from early infancy through childhood. During the first days, weeks and months after a baby is born, parents play a critical role by providing a supportive and nurturing environment. Photo credit: Photo by Artem Varnitsin for Adobe StockThe University of Florida is one of a network of institutions selected to implement the National Institutes of Health’s HEALthy Brain and Child Development (HBCD) Study or HBCD, a longitudinal, multidisciplinary effort to study brain development and behavioral health in young children, the NIH announced Thursday.

The HBCD study, which involves 25 institutions across the country, will enroll thousands of pregnant women and their babies and follow them through early childhood to identify trajectories of brain development.

“Having a benchmark like this will help researchers better understand how exposure to substances, stress, and environmental factors during this crucial time can affect the brain and alter a child’s behavioral development,” said Matthew Gurka, Ph.D., one of three co-principal investigators leading the study at UF. He is a professor in the College of Medicine’s department of health outcomes and biomedical informatics and associate director of the UF Institute for Child Health Policy. He also holds a joint faculty appointment within the UF Anita Zucker Center for Excellence in Early Childhood Studies.

Matthew Gurka, together with Kelly Gurka, MPH, Ph.D., assistant professor in the department of epidemiology in the College of Public Health and Health Professions and the College of Medicine, and Lisa Scott, Ph.D., professor and director of the Brain Cognition and Development Laboratory in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciencesdepartment of psychology at UF, received a 5-year, $6.2 million grant from the NIH to fund UF’s participation in the HBCD study.

“This is a very exciting project that will follow infants across development and into childhood to learn more about early brain development,” Scott said. “We are thrilled to be able to bring the University of Florida into this consortium as one of the premier sites for examining early infant and child neural development.”

A baby’s brain begins to develop just a few weeks after conception, and the brain grows more rapidly during pregnancy and early childhood than any other time.

During pregnancy, brain development is shaped by not only genes, but also the in-utero environment, including maternal nutrition and other exposures such as toxins, infections and emotional stress. After birth, a child’s interactions with other people and the environment become an important part of the mix. 

“During the first days, weeks and months after a baby is born, parents play a critical role in infant development by providing a supportive and nurturing environment,” Scott said. Scott’s previous research suggests that early infant experiences can have lasting impacts on learning and development and that providing a supportive home environment can help build foundational learning skills.

“In addition to gaining a deeper understanding of the normal variability in early brain development, the study aims to disentangle complex factors that negatively impact child development including substance use, trauma, and stress,” Kelly Gurka said. “Just as importantly, we want to identify factors during childhood that increase resilience, or the ability to bounce back, in the face of adversity.”

In the first five years of the HBCD study, the UF team plans to enroll up to 400 pregnant participants. At UF and the other study sites, the researchers will collect data on participants’ medical and family histories, their pregnancies, and fetal development as well as biospecimens.

As those babies age and grow, researchers will continue to collect data and biospecimens from parents and children. The study team will also use neuroimaging, including MRI and EEG, to examine the brain’s structural and functional development while documenting the children’s social, emotional and cognitive development.

Matthew Gurka said it takes more than a village to study complex health issues such as brain development in infants and children.

“The only way we can achieve the important goals of the HBCD initiative is by bringing multiple disciplines together,” he said. UF’s team spans three UF colleges, and the team’s activities will include the UF Clinical Translational Science Institute, the McKnight Brain Institute, and the UF Institute for Child Health Policy.

But bringing together an accomplished group of researchers is not sufficient to conduct this type of study, added Kelly Gurka.

“Our success is dependent on working with our network of community partners to ensure we recruit pregnant individuals not historically included in research,” she said.

The team has begun to work with a number of organizations throughout North Central Florida, including in some rural communities. They have also created a community advisory board that includes representatives from numerous agencies across the region.

Scott brings expertise in the use of innovative tools to measure brain development in infants and young children. Matthew Gurka uses advanced analytic techniques that can help identify mechanisms that may lead to behavioral or cognitive problems during this important period of development. In addition to her epidemiologic expertise which will benefit these causal analyses, Kelly Gurka’s experience with community engagement will help ensure that pregnant women from diverse backgrounds are represented in the study.

HBCD is funded by 10 institutes and offices at the National Institutes of Health, and the Helping to End Addiction Long-termSM Initiative, or NIH HEAL InitiativeSM, and is led by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).

Media contact: Ken Garcia at kdgarcia@ufl.edu or 352-265-9408.