Professor earns $3.2 million to study environmental impact on child health

A psychology professor is studying adopted children to better understand how children’s environments can impact their health.

Jody Ganiban, a professor of clinical and developmental psychology, along with two faculty members at other institutions, received a $3.2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to conduct research on the genetic and environmental factors on childhood development.

Leslie Leve, a professor of counseling psychology and human services at the University of Oregon and Jenae Neiderhiser, a professor of psychology at Pennsylvania State University, are also working on the project.

This research is part of a project called the Early Growth and Development Study, which focuses on a group of 561 children who were adopted by nonbiological parents during the first few days of their lives. The study, which has been going on for several years, follows how genetic and environmental factors influence emotional development as well as prenatal factors, like prenatal drug use, influence emotional development.

This research will follow this same sample of children, whose ages range from seven to 13 years old, through their adolescent years, studying their height and weight as well the children’s exposure to pollution and environmental toxins. The grant will also include the study of the adopted children’s siblings, whether they are also adopted or are biological.

Ganiban said collecting data on siblings is an important part of the new study and may provide more information about the influence of genes and the environment.

“The important part of this design is then we’ll be able to look at whether or not weight is something that’s determined by the children’s postnatal environment, by their adoptive parents and practice of their adoptive parents, if the adoptees are more similar to their adoptive parents, versus factors that are more genetically or prenatally influenced,” Ganiban said.

As a part of the new grant, Ganiban’s cohort of 561 children will be studied alongside 34 other NIH cohorts of children, creating a group of about 50,000 children. This larger group is the NIH’s Environmental influences on Child Health Outcomes initiative – a seven-year project aimed at advancing knowledge about how children’s environments affect their health.

This new research will also include in-home assessments, which will be led by the NIH with Ganiban and the other investigators’ input.

Ganiban said these studies are significant because they have a great potential impact on understanding children’s health and how influential a child’s environment is.

“[NIH] is hoping with the power of 50,000 participants we will get a better handle not only on the development of childhood obesity, but the overall project will be looking at environment on genetic contributions to asthma, as well as the newer developmental outcomes of mental health,” Ganiban said.

Ganiban’s previous studies looked for patterns in psychiatric in children, which could lead to the identification of critical periods in a child’s life when professional intervention may be necessary.

“It’s all about identifying when children need help the most, when children become most vulnerable and perhaps would benefit from intervention the most,” she said.

In addition to her work with EGAD, Ganiban also works the Boston University Twin Project, another NIH-funded research project, which focuses on the development of children’s personalities during the preschool years from an environmental and a genetic perspective.

Ganiban said her research has an impact in her developmental psychology and development of psychopathology classes, and her students also have an impact on her research, whether as undergraduate researchers or through the questions they ask in class.

“I can draw upon the research concepts and findings that I have in my own work and apply it to the classroom,” Ganiban said. “Some of the questions that the students ask, the holes that they find or they just tell me, ‘That just doesn’t make sense,’ I can also apply that to my research. My students keep on my toes.”

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