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Snapshots in NICHD Science 1962-2012: Child Development

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Child Development

Much NICHD research focuses on identifying the physiologic mechanisms that underlie growth and development, and the linkages among the developing brain, behavior, and genes to improve understanding of typical and atypical growth, behavior, and cognition across all phases of child development.


Effective interventions play a critical role not only in changing outcomes, but also in changing biological processes. For example, a landmark study documents real-world and long-lasting benefits of early education and health care interventions among at-risk children living in poverty. Later studies use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to show that such effective interventions reshape the functional brain patterns of poor readers into those that more closely resemble those of normal readers. The finding that lower birthweight babies are at higher risk for coronary heart disease in later life leads to the Barker Hypothesis, which posits that in utero events can influence later health and disease, including the occurrence of chronic conditions, such as diabetes. NICHD research continues to explore the influence of maternal diet on offspring's long-term health outcomes, including studies in animal models such as the Agouti mouse. This model demonstrates that higher levels of choline and betaine in the mother's diet decrease expression of specific genes, resulting in offspring with a darker coat and reduced prevalence of obesity and diabetes.
Studies of normative development offer a foundation for understanding abnormal processes. These studies, including a bone mineral density study that provides pediatric reference data, and a large-scale MRI study of children that defines normative structural brain development and neuropsychological data, provide the basis for exploring both typical and atypical physical and cognitive development.

The discovery of the gene that causes Fragile X syndrome and an entirely new type of genetic mutation, trinucleotide repeats, expands opportunities for studying this most common inherited form of intellectual and developmental disability. This work also leads to the finding that mutations in the same gene cause two other conditions with unique features and symptoms: Fragile X-Associated Tremor and Ataxia Syndrome and Fragile X-Associated Primary Ovarian Insufficiency. As a result of this research, the NICHD leads a coordinated research effort to learn more about all three conditions. Research shows that a combination of newborn screening and dietary therapy beginning at birth eliminates phenylketonuria (PKU), a disorder of phenylalanine metabolism that leads to intellectual and developmental disability if left untreated. Later studies show that continuing the dietary therapy during pregnancy also prevents related intellectual and developmental disability in the children of women with PKU.
Scientific resources that systematically collect, store, and distribute tissue samples and other data for research, such as the NICHD Brain and Tissue Bank for Developmental Disorders, encourage collaboration and data sharing that is key to advancing knowledge of intellectual and developmental disorders, such as autism and Down syndrome, as well as sudden infant death syndrome and other disorders.
Building on its early newborn screening successes and technologies, the NICHD continues this important work by establishing the Newborn Screening Translation Research Network, which provides infrastructure support and resources to the research community, including a virtual repository, patient registries, and new technologies to improve screening capabilities.

Understanding risky behaviors is an important part of creating ways to prevent or reduce them. For example, studies on risky behavior in teen drivers show that teens are less likely to engage in risky driving behaviors, such as rapid acceleration and delayed braking, if parents set strict limits on driving privileges. Based on these findings, such restrictions become a cornerstone of the national Checkpoints program, which educates parents and teens about reducing risky driving.
Studies of rare disorders offer a unique window into normal development. For example, researchers find that a form of the 'brittle bone' disease that can lead to early death, Osteogenesis Imperfecta, results from a malfunction in genes that make collagen, the main material that comprises bone. This finding provides new information about collagen function in normal bone formation. Similarly, research on the copper storage syndrome, Menkes disease, offers new insight into how copper is involved in normal brain development and function.
An international clinical trial builds on research that infant exposure to cow-milk proteins plays a role in stimulating the immune system to destroy insulin-producing cells of the pancreas; such cell destruction is a common mechanism in type 1 diabetes. Weaning infants from breast milk to an infant formula free of cow-milk proteins may delay or prevent the onset of type 1 diabetes in children who are genetically susceptible, making primary prevention of the condition a real possibility.

Institute scientists pioneer new conjugate vaccine technology that leads to the elimination of Haemophilus influenza type b (Hib) meningitis as a cause of acquired intellectual and developmental disability in the United States. The technology is then used to create dozens of effective and safe vaccines that are part of the standard vaccination schedule for infants, children, and adults.

Looking to the Future

As we look to the future, we aim to capitalize on this knowledge to develop perspectives and tools that maximize physical, social, behavioral, and cognitive development, and that prevent and better treat a range of developmental disabilities.


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Last Updated Date: 10/21/2013
Last Reviewed Date: 10/21/2013
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