$157 Million in NIH Funding Targets Environmental Influences on Child Health

Funded by a major NIH award, Psychology’s Jody Ganiban will lead GW’s pediatric cohort of researchers investigating how exposure to environmental factors affects children’s health.

October 13, 2016

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) recently announced $157 million in grant awards to launch a seven-year initiative called Environmental influences on Child Health Outcomes (ECHO). The ECHO program will investigate how exposure to a range of environmental factors in early development—from conception through early childhood—influences the health of children and adolescents. The NIH funding includes grants to support and extend existing longitudinal studies of children and families that examine environmental influences on children’s health outcomes. Among the grant awards is $3.2 million in funding over a two-year period to a pediatric cohort led Jody Ganiban, professor of clinical psychology in the Columbian College, Jenae Neiderhiser, professor of psychology at Penn State, and Leslie Leve, professor and associate dean for research and faculty development at the University of Oregon. This award includes the possibility of annual grant extensions through the life of the ECHO initiative.

Ganiban and her cohort will draw on a wealth of already collected data from the Early Growth and Development Study (EGDS), an adoption study of birth parents, adoptive parents and adopted children and siblings that examines how heredity, prenatal environment and rearing environment—including family, peer and other relationships—affect a child’s adjustment. EGDS contains data from families all over the United States and measurements of family social environment, the prenatal environment, medical records from birth parents and the adopted child and biological markers. This sample will be unique amongst the ECHO pediatric cohorts because it will enable researchers to distinguish heritable from environmental influences on child health outcomes.   

“The work of our cohort is unique in that it will include genetically related and unrelated siblings from across the United States, as well as some sibling pairs who are living together in the same family and others who are being raised in different families,” Ganiban explained. “Comparing the health and environments of biological siblings who are being raised apart will enable us to understand how different settings affect children who may share the same genetic or biological risks. Conversely, including genetically unrelated siblings being raised in the same home will enable us to understand how the same environment affects the health of children with very different genetic or biological risks.”

At the family level, according to Ganiban, the work of her cohort will shed new light on which specific aspects of the home environment—such as diet, sleep routines, conflict, screen time and family relationships—can maximize or undermine health outcomes for individual children; while, at the same time, also provide information about the broader impacts of environmental toxins and socioeconomic disparities on adolescent health.

The first phase of the ECHO project will include a two-year planning period, during which the researchers will work closely with other members of the ECHO consortium and NIH to design the data collection phase of the project. The first phase will also require that Ganiban, Neiderhiser and Leve reconnect with families who previously participated in the Early Growth and Development Study and recruit additional family members from both birth and adoptive families, resulting in a total sample of over 1,000 children and over 900 sibling pairs. In addition, the research team will use geographical coding to assess children’s exposure to environmental pollutants and conduct brief health interviews with participants.

In the second phase of the ECHO program, all members of the consortium will spend five years collecting new behavioral and biological data as well as information about environmental stress and toxins. They will also conduct new analyses that encompass all of the ECHO pediatric cohorts. Analyses will focus on the impact of early social adversity on the emergence of biological health risks as early as the prenatal period. Analyses will also examine the interplay between genetic and biological risks with environmental stress and toxin exposures across childhood.

“When all the study samples are combined, the entire ECHO consortium will provide a rich data set for the identification of the specific mechanisms and processes that lead to health problems for children living in diverse environments and who have different types of risk factors,” Ganiban said. “We hope that our data, combined with other ECHO-funded projects, will lead to improved prevention efforts to minimize health problems and promote healthy development.”

The ECHO grant extends ongoing work led by Ganiban in collaboration with Neiderhiser and Leve that focuses on genetic and environmental factors that contribute to the development of obesity across childhood.