Prof awarded more than $12 million to study children's health

University of Oregon researchers will play a key role in a landmark National Institutes of Health initiative that seeks to better understand the effects of environmental exposures on children’s health and development.

Leslie Leve, a professor in the Department of Counseling Psychology and Human Services in the College of Education, associate director of the Prevention Science Institute and associate vice president for research, has received a five-year, $12.5 million grant to lead the UO’s involvement in the NIH’s second phase of the Environmental influences on Child Health Outcomes Program, also known as ECHO.

Leve, along with Jenae Neiderhiser, professor of psychology at Pennsylvania State University, and Jody Ganiban, professor of clinical and developmental psychology at George Washington University, serve as principal investigators on the collaborative study. Researchers will collect biospecimens, environmental context data and behavioral data from 1,000 children and their families to examine everything from obesity to neurodevelopment to positive health outcomes.

All told, the NIH’s ECHO initiative, which launched two years ago, involves more than 30 studies nationwide and will combine data from around 50,000 children from diverse racial, geographic and socioeconomic backgrounds.

“This is a landmark NIH initiative and will serve as the U.S.’s flagship study of children’s behavioral and physical health by studying families from infancy or prenatally through childhood and adolescence, Leve said. “We are very excited to be continuing as part of this important national initiative.”

By looking at a range of environmental factors in early development — from conception through early childhood — researchers hope to gain a clearer picture of how environmental exposures affect the health and development of children and adolescents, particularly during critical windows of development.

The program will address research questions like the effect of pollution and chemical toxins on children’s health, how family conflict can affect children’s well-being, how warm and sensitive parenting can counteract genetic or prenatal risks that a child may be born with, and how a child’s genes and the dietary practices of their family interact to predict child healthy weight and prevent obesity. By including siblings in Leve’s study, the research team will also be able to learn why some children have very different health outcomes than their siblings.

The interdisciplinary program brings together psychologists, nutritionists, statisticians, public health specialists, geneticists and investigators from numerous other disciplines. All told, about 20 researchers will be involved in the UO’s portion of the research. They include UO biologist Brendan Bohannan and postdoctoral scholar Hannah Tavalire, who will examine gut microbiome samples to determine how genetics and biology influence child development, and Prevention Science Institute research scientist David DeGarmo, who will lead data harmonization efforts and examine the role of fathers on children’s development.

“This study takes interdisciplinary science to a whole new level,” Leve said. “We’re collecting many different types of biomarkers so that researchers can start to look at not only the genetics and hormonal contributions to behavior but the chemical exposures, the timing of those exposures and how the home environment and child-rearing practices can play a protective or harmful role when such exposures occur.”

Leve says the large sample size of the study allows researchers to tackle big questions, such as whether certain experiences are more potent when children are exposed during sensitive windows of development. Researchers will assess all ECHO families in the study on a common battery of surveys and biometrics.

By harnessing the power of data science, researchers will be able to zero in on numerous areas of interest. For example, using geocoding approaches, they will be able to use national databases to examine chemical exposures and better understand the health effects of variables such as air or water quality or the availability of healthy food.

Research teams that applied for the NIH program were required to have already recruited mothers into the study. Leve’s sample is the Early Growth and Development Study, a longitudinal study of adoptive families and birth parents.

The sample was designed to help disentangle genetic and environmental influences on child development. She and her colleagues have been following the original adopted children for 15 years and the biological siblings for the last five years, with additional siblings recruited during the first phase of ECHO.

“We knew at the time we designed the study that it was a really novel idea because it gives researchers the unique ability to separate the effects of what happens before the moment you’re born from what happens after you are born,” Leve said. “There are very few studies in the world that can answer that question in the same way that we can.”

By Lewis Taylor, University Communications