Children’s brains develop very quickly in their early years, and this development is influenced by their environment. Understanding exactly how mothers’ and children’s exposure to adverse environmental factors (such as lead and organic pollutants) affects child development, however, can make a world of difference. This knowledge has the potential to help drive environmental and public health policy, lead to better, early interventions, and improve the health and lives of tens of thousands of children across the nation.

The National Institutes for Health (NIH) is leading the Environmental Influences of Child Health and Outcomes (ECHO) study, which focuses on this issue. ECHO, which has enrolled more than 50,000 children from diverse backgrounds, promises a better understanding of the interaction between the environment and child development. As part of this work, the NIH recently awarded a $4.8 million grant to a Michigan team comprising representatives from MSU, UM, WSU, the Henry Ford Health System, and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services to support collaborative research.

This team will be working with ten hospitals and 20 clinics throughout the state. ECHO will examine how environment affects children’s health outcomes over time and build on research in areas that the three URC institutions jointly worked on for the National Children’s Study—such as autism spectrum disorders, low birth weight, and childhood obesity.

“The results should provide critical information about prenatal environmental influences and the health of children, contributing to public policy formations in maternal and child health and ultimately improving the public health of mothers and children,” said Nigel Paneth, M.D., M.P.H., university distinguished professor of epidemiology and biostatistics in the MSU College of Human Medicine. As part of this work, Douglas Ruden, Ph.D., codirector of the Exposures Signatures Core Facility in the Center for Urban Responses to Environmental Stressors at WSU, leads a team working to determine whether environmental pollutants change the epigenome of the DNA in children.

“My research team has studied lead toxicity in Detroit for over ten years and published a research paper last year that showed that maternal exposure to lead can alter the DNA in the grandchildren,” Ruden said. “This was the first demonstration of multigenerational effects of lead poisoning.”

The ECHO study uses innovative blood spot techniques that were developed in part through research supported by URC seed funding. “Innovative to our approach is the use of newborn dried blood spots from the Michigan Neonatal Biobank, a unique resource for the assessment of both perinatal exposures and epigenetic markers,” said Dana Dolinoy, Ph.D., associate professor for environmental health sciences and nutritional sciences at U-M’s School of Public Health.

The ECHO study is a good example of how the URC institutions collaborate to deliver powerful research.