Investigating Brain and Behavior Development in Typical and High-Risk Children

Award: $46,921

Mental illnesses are likely present early in childhood, long before the symptoms begin to emerge in adolescence or adulthood. By leveraging the data from the Early Brain Development (EBD) study, researcher Dr. Sarah Short will study trajectories of the brain and behavioral development from birth through pre-adolescence, searching for signs of mental illness symptoms that correlate with early brain development.

Sarah Short, Ph.D.

Need/Problem: The neural basis of major mental illnesses is likely present early in childhood, long before the clinical symptoms begin to emerge in adolescence or adulthood. Until recently, methods for studying the developing brain were unavailable.

Grant Summary: This study seeks to provide new knowledge and hope for preventing mental illness and promoting healthy outcomes in children by improving our understanding of early brain and behavioral development. We now have the opportunity to identify early neural markers that predict later onset of psychiatric illness. Our ultimate goal is to use this knowledge to identify at-risk individuals early in life and to design preventive interventions that leverage critical periods of brain development and the inherent plasticity of the developing brain – we believe that this strategy holds significant promise for improving the long-term health and wellbeing of individuals at risk for mental illness.

Goals & Projected Outcomes:  The goal of our study is to collect neuroimaging and cognitive data on a subset of individuals from our large longitudinal study of Early Brain Development (EBD) who are now turning 8 and 10 years old. We will use data from these children to look at trajectories of brain and behavioral development from birth through pre-adolescence and look for signs of prodromal symptoms that might relate to earlier brain development. In addition, this study will provide the pilot data necessary for securing a large federal grant so that we may continue to follow all the children from our large longitudinal study into adolescence and eventually into adulthood.

Grant Details: Our EBD study has now established the world’s largest longitudinal dataset, with neuroimaging and cognitive-behavioral measures collected on over 1000 typical and high-risk children followed from birth through early childhood. Measures of brain and behavioral development have been collected on these children at 2 weeks, 1yr, 2yrs, 4yrs, and 6 years of age. Data from this study holds great promise for improving our understanding healthful development, disease risk, and illness prevention.

Now, on the cusp of adolescence, many of the children from our EBD study are turning 8 and 10 years old. Recent research has demonstrated that children as young as 8 years old have deficits in cognitive function that are predictive of later psychosis. This stage of child development represents another crucial period characterized by accelerated brain maturation that is associated with greater cognitive control of emotions, enhanced social awareness, stronger reasoning skills and problem-solving abilities. Capturing the neurocognitive profiles of these children as they transition from childhood to adolescence may hold the keys for identifying early biomarkers of risk, prior to the onset of clinical symptoms.

Although longitudinal measures are considered essential for furthering our understanding of neurocognitive development there currently are no other longitudinal studies that have neuroimaging and cognitive data that span this period of development from birth through early childhood. It is critical that we continue to follow these children into adolescence and adulthood in order to determine which aspects of neurocognitive development are indicative of healthful outcomes and which are associated with psychiatric disease.  Thus, the proposed study leverages the substantial investment to date by the EBD study and aims to extend the collection of neuroimaging data and cognitive-behavioral measures on a subset of typically developing and high-risk children from the EBD study that are turning 8 and 10 years old.