Vermont's youngest residents are helping to unravel the intricate process of brain development during the crucial early years of life. In 2021, University of Vermont neuroscientists received a $5.5 million National Institute of Health (NIH) grant to support the Phase II segment of the HEALthy Brain and Child Development (HBCD) Study, joining a select group of investigators leading this groundbreaking national initiative. The HBCD Study, the largest long-term study of early brain and child development in the United States, aims to comprehensively collect data on brain development from birth through early childhood, shedding light on the factors that shape a young person's life trajectory.
The HBCD Study, funded by 10 institutes and offices at the National Institutes of Health, through the Helping to End Addiction Long-term Initiative, or NIH HEAL Initiative
, is led by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Participating researchers, including those at UVM, will collect various data points during pregnancy and through early childhood, including:
• Pictures of the brain
• Growth measurements
• Samples of blood and saliva (biosamples)
• Medical and family history surveys
• Information about their social, emotional, and cognitive development
UVM’s important role in the HBCD Study is linked to its participation in the landmark nationwide Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) Study
, making it one of only a few universities to receive both awards. The ABCD Study, which enrolled and began collecting data from 9- to 10-year-old Vermonters from 2016 to 2018, continues to engage and follow participants as they grow into adulthood. The HBCD Phase I, an 18-month planning period, laid the foundation for the transformative Phase II segment of the study. UVM Professors of Psychiatry Alexandra Potter, Ph.D., and Hugh Garavan, Ph.D., play a leadership role in the administrative component of the HBCD Study, run the study at UVM, and serve as co-lead investigators for the ABCD study.
“This research offers an unprecedented opportunity for UVM and Vermont and has the potential to find the earliest markers for how environmental influences impact health outcomes,” says Potter, who adds that UVM’s state-of-the-art imaging facilities, Vermont’s rural population, and the Larner College of Medicine’s support of rural health care assisted with the team’s success in receiving the grant award.
The HBCD Study aims to bridge a significant knowledge gap by investigating the long-term effects of perinatal exposure to substances including opioids on infant and child development. By delving into brain development from the perinatal period through early childhood, researchers aim to uncover the impact of substance exposure, stressors, trauma, and environmental influences.
UVM’s distinctive contributions to the HBCD Study include being one of the 28 primary sites, aiming to recruit 330 pregnant individuals within the initial 2.5 years. The establishment of a rural community research network, with facilitators dispersed across rural Vermont, enhances accessibility and inclusivity for participants residing in remote areas.
Through rigorous recruitment efforts, the Vermont site plans to enroll three to five pregnant individuals in their second trimester per week for three years, allowing for the collection of biospecimens at birth. These invaluable data will also enable researchers to explore genetic influences on cognitive, behavioral, and emotional outcomes during childhood.
The HBCD Study’s commitment to publicly sharing data revolutionizes the research landscape, enabling researchers to access vital information without financial barriers.
“We are really excited about the science,” says Garavan . “Thousands of researchers have accessed the ABCD study dataset and published important findings from it over the past couple of years,” he explains, adding that the data from the HBCD study will provide never-before-seen insights into how the outside world impacts the developing brain starting at the prenatal stage.
Vermont’s selection as a key site for the HBCD Study solidifies its position as a leader in advancing knowledge of child brain development. With a commitment to publicly sharing data and eliminating cost barriers, UVM is working to ensure widespread access to critical information for researchers. By actively engaging pregnant individuals across rural areas and prioritizing inclusivity, UVM aims to make significant strides in understanding the impact of genetic and numerous perinatal environmental influences, ultimately enhancing the well-being of future generations.