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Researchers Awarded $9.4 Million NIH Grant to Investigate Environmental Exposures on Childhood Development

Drs. Sheela Sathyanarayana and Brent CollettSept. 5, 2023 — Congratulations to Drs. Sheela Sathyanarayana and Brent Collett, principal investigators in Seattle Children’s Research Institute’s Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development, on their recent seven-year, $9.4 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, Mediators and Modifiers of Prenatal Environmental Exposures and Child Neurodevelopment (MEND).

This funding enables the team to continue their PATHWAYS GAPPS study within Seattle and Yakima, Washington. The project investigates associations between prenatal exposure to neurotoxic chemicals and child neurodevelopment, as well as researches practices that could help lessen the effects of environmental exposures on expectant parents and their families.

Environmental exposures can encompass a wide range of potential contacts, many of which appear to be almost harmless while others are considerably more toxic. Phthalates, for example, are chemicals used in everyday goods to enhance the durability of plastics. This group of chemicals is in many household products such as vinyl flooring, children’s toys and care items, and even in personal care items such as soaps and shampoos.

While research is ongoing to study the impact of phthalates on human health, there is evidence that phthalates can negatively affect hormone production and hinder important growth and development milestones.

Using data collected in the larger NIH Environmental Influences on Child Health Outcomes (ECHO) Consortium, the MEND study will examine combinations of neurotoxic exposure on a range of child outcomes such as childhood neurological and physical development. Further, the team will study factors like maternal nutrition that could help inform future interventions to reduce the effects of exposure.

“Most published studies on environmental exposures examine one environmental chemical in relation to a particular health outcome,” said Sathyanarayana, who is also an adjunct professor of environmental and occupational health sciences at the University of Washington. “The reality is, we are exposed to multiple environmental chemicals every day that may work together to cause greater harm. This grant will support researching the effects of these mixed exposures.”

The study team believes reducing exposures to harmful environmental chemicals will impact public health policy and better inform consumer decisions at different stages of childhood development.

The MEND study includes diverse perspectives, consistent with the overall NIH/ECHO research model.

“We have sites in Yakima and Seattle to facilitate equitable inclusion of rural and urban families,” Collett, also an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Washington, said. “This will better reflect the range of exposures in these settings and the diverse population in Washington state.”

The study team includes researchers from four groups historically under-represented in science and a mix of junior and senior investigators to help amplify diverse perspectives in data collection.

MEND study findings will add to the larger NIH ECHO Consortium database, a $500 million initiative. The data is available for researchers interested in studying the effects of environmental exposures on a wide range of childhood health outcomes, such as neurodevelopment and obesity.

“This funding allows us to continue our interdisciplinary research in rural and urban communities,” Sathyanarayana said. “In the long term, we hope to reverse the adverse childhood health outcomes associated with prenatal environmental exposures and better support a healthier environment for future generations.”

— Empress Rivera-Ruiz

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