Psychology professor awarded $12.5 million to study adopted children’s development

Media Credit: Donna Armstrong | Contributing Photo Editor

A psychology professor received a $12.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health last month to study the mental and physical development of adopted children.

A psychology professor will research how genetics and the environment impact adopted children’s health and development to the tune of nearly $13 million.

Jody Ganiban, a clinical and developmental psychology professor, and two professors at other institutions received a $12.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health last month to study the mental and physical development of adopted children as part of a two-year-old project called the Early Growth and Development Study. The researchers said the five-year grant will kickstart the second phase of the project, which will focus on collecting data about children’s behavior, geographical location and genetic makeup.

The project – which launched in 2002 as an independent study and became part of NIH’s Environmental Influences on Child Health Outcomes program in 2016 – will produce a better understanding of all aspects of child development that can be applied to future pediatric and clinical practices, researchers said. The outcomes program includes more than 30 studies that evaluate different factors that contribute to a child’s development.

“Our game plan is to assess the adoptees and their adopted siblings who are not genetically related to them, but also to recruit the adoptees’ biological siblings who are still living with their biological parents,” Ganiban said. “So through that, we’re going to start to look at how kids with similar genes develop in very different environments.”

The study formally commenced two years ago after researchers received a $3.2 million grant initiating the first phase of the study, which included basic data collection, she said.

Ganiban said the new grant will pay for interviewers to travel to areas like the Netherlands, California and D.C. to study about 1,000 children and interview them and their families – a process that will begin in February. The interviewers are currently being trained by the NIH to ensure they will properly assess all the sites the same way, she said.

She said the second phase will also involve electronic surveys and biological samples.

She said researchers will examine how factors like pollution and community violence impact adopted children’s physical and mental development. She added that the researchers also chose subjects to study based on racial and socioeconomic diversity, which she said will more “accurately” reflect health disparities across the United States.

“There are a lot of gaps in our knowledge about child development in general,” she said. “You can’t just take the principles of development that were based upon one segment of society and impose them on everyone else.”

Jenae Neiderhiser, a professor of psychology, human development and family studies at Penn State University and a principal investigator on the study, said studying adopted children allows researchers to look at the separate effects of genetic and environmental influences on children’s physical and mental development.

“We’re able to take apart the genetic and environmental effects and look at how they work together to help to shape who the child is, the child’s health and well-being and all those sorts of things,” she said.

She said the grant will go toward sending interviewers to about 40 U.S. states and two foreign countries to gather information on factors like how family conflict and dietary practices impact a child’s development.

“We’re working collaboratively with 30 other projects and those projects might have studies of families that are really different than ours,” she said. “Trying to work together to come up with common research questions has been challenging for sure, but also, in the end, it makes the science stronger.”

Leslie Leve, a professor of counseling psychology and human services at the University of Oregon and a principal investigator on the study, said including siblings in the study will show researchers why some children have different health outcomes than both their biological and adopted siblings.

“Sometimes you think, ‘oh, a certain type of parenting is good for all kids,’ and what we’re finding is that’s not necessarily the case,” Leve said.

She added that compiling large amounts of data will allow the researchers to distinguish differences between the influences of specific environmental components, like chemical exposures and air quality, on child development.

“You’re born with a certain set of genes, you’re born with a certain set of prenatal experiences – those aren’t things we can go back and change or undo, but based on what we know about how genes work together with the environment, the research question is what can we do in the environment to help children develop to their fullest potential,” Leve said.

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