URMC receives $18 million grant to study prenatal inflammation

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Researchers at the University of Rochester Medical Center will receive an $18 million grant from the National Institute of Health to study prenatal inflammation.

Previous studies have shown that conditions like anxiety, stress, and obesity are associated with a large and common array of behavioral and physical health conditions in children.

Over the next 7 years, URMC will track several families from the first trimester of pregnancy through the child’s fourth birthday, to see if prenatal inflammation is the link between these conditions.

The research is the first detailed investigation of how inflammation — part of the body’s immune response — during pregnancy can affect a child’s neurodevelopment as well as the metabolic systems for processing nutrients and energy.

“Obesity, stress, anxiety, and a history of trauma have all been linked with elevated levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines, which are chemicals that are part of the body’s immune response. This seems to be generally the case in adults and, of particular concern to us, in pregnant women,” said Thomas O’Connor, Ph.D., Professor ofPsychiatry and Director of the Wynne Center for Family Research at URMC. “Inflammation underlies a number of health conditions which may all be connected, and that makes it a very compelling target for developmental health research starting in the prenatal period.”

Clinical scientists have known for some time that proinflammatory cytokines can be measured in the blood at varying levels among individuals.

If URMC researchers find that prenatal immune activation does alter child growth and development, then that would open up new targets for intervention.

“In addition to providing new basic knowledge, our study is also positioned to identify additional mechanisms that may guide clinical treatment and improve child health outcomes and ultimately population health,” said O’Connor, the study director.

The grant is part of $157 million in funding announced today by the National Institutes of Health as it launches itsEnvironmental influences on Child Health Outcomes (ECHO) program. The ECHO program will investigate how exposure to a range of environmental factors in early development — from conception through early childhood — influences the health of children and adolescents.

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