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University of Minnesota enters national long-term research looking at child development and substance use

While there’s a body of research on how substances affect brain development, researchers say there has been no comprehensive study looking at early years of life over a long period of time.

Swaddled, sleeping baby
The study aims to enroll around 7,500 people across the nation and follow them throughout infancy until age 10.

Minnesota will be part of a new national study to track brain development among children who have been exposed to drugs or alcohol. 

While there’s a body of research on how substances affect brain development, researchers say there has been no comprehensive study looking at early years of life over a long period of time. 

The study, the largest of its kind so far, is sponsored by the National Institutes of Health and  aims to enroll around 7,500 people across the nation and follow them throughout infancy until age 10. Over the next three years, Minnesota wants to enroll around 300 people, according to Sylia Wilson, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota Institute of Child Development and leader on the project. 

The University of Minnesota is one of 28 partner sites for the study, joined by universities, hospitals and health systems in other states. 

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“We’re essentially capturing data, like from the U of M, from different sites across the country. And then we collate it, organize it, analyze it and distribute it to the world for use in scientific endeavors,” said Dr. Damien Fair, the co-director for the Masonic Institute for the Developing Brain and professor at the university. 

Fair is one of the Minnesota site leaders who will be collecting the data from state participants and is also the principal investigator for the national data coordinating center on this study. 

A quarter of the total sample will include children whose mothers had a history of substance use, while another quarter will be children with similar environments, locations, demographics and history, but with no substance use history. The remaining half will be children representative of overall U.S. demographics, he said. 

With the help of community organizations, like birth centers and addiction treatment centers, the researchers hope to find people whose circumstances apply to the study, especially those from areas hit by the opioid crisis. 

“We definitely do really in-depth interviews around substance use at multiple time points: during the pregnancy, and then afterward after the baby is born,” Wilson said. “We will have really good in-depth information about the different substances that might be being used, when they might be being used, how much is being used, how frequently, and that’ll allow us — across the entire dataset, the entire consortium — to ask some more specific questions about the potential effects of different types of substances or about the effects of different combinations of substances or exposure to different substances at different periods in development.”

What will the scans show?

Fair said the study will look at various measures in the brain, from things like size of different parts, brain function metrics, to the amount of white matter on top of neurons. 

“This is very rich in the types of information that we’re getting from the brain,” Fair said. 

The brain scans will be done more frequently in the first couple years of the child’s life and will become less frequent as they get older. 

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“We’re going to have good images of what that brain looks like as it grows and how it changes as it grows. So we’re going to be able to get information on the cortex … then we’re gonna get information on the subcortical structures,” Wilson said. “We’re also going to be doing some state-of-the-art imaging techniques that are going to let us get information about how do different parts of the brain work with each other over time, how do different parts of the brain couple with one another.” 

And this research is filling a gap in knowledge. 

“We’re able to start the brain scan within the first month of life, essentially as soon as the babies are born,” Fair said. “There has been a lot of research that has gone on to try to understand the effects of all types of various environmental factors including substance use on the brain. The issue is that the samples weren’t necessarily large enough, or maybe starting earlier enough, or having repeated samples within the same person to get really good estimates of trajectories, timing, critical periods, sensitive periods, all these things that really matter for how we want to go about treating or assisting folks who have atypical brain development but also enhancing typical brain development as well.”

A different study, which also includes Minnesota families, known as the Adolescent Brain and Child Development Study, is looking at development in around 12,000 people starting at ages 9 to 10 and will follow them through young adulthood. This new study will focus on the earlier years. 

“That period of the first 1,000 days … is so critical for making sure that we’re providing the right environments, giving the right inputs … all that of that is really critical in that period of time because it’s the period of time where the brain is most plastic and able to change,” Fair said. “Having this type of rich data that early on is going to be groundbreaking.” 

Nationally, around 250 patients have been enrolled as of this week, with five to 10 of them from Minnesota, Fair said. 

The study is designed to be easy to participate in, Fair said, as the researchers want it to be accessible for families. Each site has peer navigating systems to help families, and the data collected will also be available to the families to help with decision making relevant to the child’s health.