“Maternal experiences and environmental exposures around the time of conception, later in pregnancy and during infancy can have long-lasting effects on the health of children,” said UCI’s Pathik Wadhwa. Steve Zylius / UCI

Irvine, Calif., Sept. 29, 2016 — The University of California, Irvine’s Development, Health & Disease Research Program has been selected to take part in a $157 million federal initiative to understand how environmental influences from conception through early childhood can affect the health of youngsters and adolescents.

The UCI researchers, led by Dr. Pathik Wadhwa, will receive $3.6 million from the National Institutes of Health over the next two years to study how a mother’s immune system during pregnancy can modify her child’s brain development as well as metabolic and endocrine processes that underlie obesity and a broad array of other health issues.

It’s a portion of a seven-year, $18.3 million grant awarded to a consortium of researchers at UCI, the University of Rochester, the University of Pittsburgh and Oregon Health & Science University through the NIH’s Environmental Influences on Child Health Outcomes, or ECHO, initiative.

“Maternal experiences and environmental exposures around the time of conception, later in pregnancy and during infancy can have long-lasting effects on the health of children,” said Wadhwa, a professor of psychiatry & human behavior who leads UCI’s Development, Health & Disease Research Program. “We are excited to be involved in this major national effort.”

With the $3.6 million, Wadhwa’s program is growing considerably, having received three other NIH grants in the past year – the four totaling nearly $14 million in support.

The others fund the following research:

  • A $3.5 million National Institute of Mental Health award builds a cohort of pregnant women with a history of exposure to childhood maltreatment to determine effects on the structure and function of fetal brain development, as assessed by newborn multimodal MRI brain scans. UCI developmental neuroscientist Claudia Buss is co-directing this study with Wadhwa.
  • A $3.6 million National Institute on Minority Health & Health Disparities grant establishes a cohort of first- and second-generation Mexican American women and their children to determine the influence of maternal acculturation (the process of sociocultural adaptation) during pregnancy on fetal developmental processes related to childhood obesity risk, as assessed by imaging of newborn and infant body composition and metabolic function. UCI pediatric psychobiologist Sonja Entringer is co-directing this study with Wadhwa.
  • A $3 million National Institute on Aging award to Wadhwa creates a pregnancy cohort of socially disadvantaged African American and Caucasian women and their children to examine whether alterations in the biological set points of cellular systems that underlie the aging process occur as early as during intrauterine life. The primary outcome of interest – cellular aging – will be determined by characterizing the structure and function of each child’s telomere biology system at birth and during infancy.

For the ECHO grant, Wadhwa, Buss and Entringer are joined by developmental psychologist Thomas O’Connor of the University of Rochester and maternal-fetal medicine specialist Dr. Hyagriv Simhan of the University of Pittsburgh.

“Based on a convergence of findings from human and animal studies, it is now increasingly apparent that developmental processes in early life, particularly those that occur before birth, have critical consequences over and above those of genetic characteristics and lifestyle factors for individual and population health,” said Wadhwa, who founded the Development, Health & Disease Research Program in 2000. “These recent grants awarded to the program will expand the scope of its work in new and important directions.”

Three other UCI researchers will receive sub-awards from the ECHO initiative:

  • Deborah Wing, professor of obstetrics & gynecology, will get $564,562 from a Medical University of South Carolina grant to help enroll more than 50,000 children from diverse racial, geographic and socioeconomic backgrounds in the ECHO consortium.
  • Douglas Granger, professor of psychology & social behavior, will get $467,519 from a New York University grant to study how exposure to environmental factors influences youngsters’ health.
  • Jun Wu, associate professor of public health, will get $195,612 from a University of Southern California grant to examine childhood health issues related to asthma and obesity.

About the University of California, Irvine: Founded in 1965, UCI is the youngest member of the prestigious Association of American Universities. The campus has produced three Nobel laureates and is known for its academic achievement, premier research, innovation and anteater mascot. Led by Chancellor Howard Gillman, UCI has more than 30,000 students and offers 192 degree programs. It’s located in one of the world’s safest and most economically vibrant communities and is Orange County’s second-largest employer, contributing $5 billion annually to the local economy. For more on UCI, visit www.uci.edu.

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