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Neurodevelopmental Research Program

For Families

The Care Project: Helping Pregnant Moms and Babies - NOW RECRUITING PARTICIPANTS!

FOR PREGNANT WOMEN in the Metro Denver Area.... Do you feel overwhelmed?...sad?...low energy?...stressed? pleasure? The Care Project is a research study that offers women the possibility of free interpersonal psychotherapy to help manage stress, build better relationships and social support during pregnancy. Transportation and childcare are provided for all therapy and research appointments. If you are interested in learning more, please call 719-695-2284, or email, or visit

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General Study Updates

Researchers are increasingly recognizing that a child's early experiences have lasting consequences for his/her development. Nonetheless, very little is known about the ways a child's prenatal experiences shape development. Our studies at the University of Denver Neurodevelopmental Research Program will make important contributions to our understanding of the effects of early experiences on development.
Your participation in our current research is helping us to examine several aspects of a child's prenatal environment (including gestational age at birth, medications given during pregnancy, etc.) and how they may affect his/her behavior and the way he/she learns and grows. 
Learn more about our study in the Live Science article, "The Truth About How Mom's Stress Affects Baby's Brain".  
We would like to thank you again for your participation in this important study!
If you have moved or changed your phone number, please contact the neurodevelopment research program at 
303-871-3797 or email us at

Recent Findings

Does Shape or Size Matter? 

Research has found that larger brains are associated with greater intelligence. However, much of the evidence for the "bigger is better" theory was obtained through studies in which only adults were the subjects. Therefore, we wanted to see if the "bigger is better" hypothesis applies to typically developing preadolescents and if it applies to a specific area of the brain, the basal ganglia. The basal ganglia is a structure in the middle of the brain that is thought to be responsible for sensory and motor coordination and automatic movements.

Our study included 50 children between 6-10 years of age. The children had brain scans with Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) to determine the shape and size of different brain structures. Children also took tests of intelligence, memory, motor skills and problem solving. Different methods were used to determine the associations between cognitive performance and shape and size of the brain. We found that shape, or formation of the basal ganglia, not size, were associated with cognitive performance in preadolescents! "Bulges" in specific areas of the basal ganglia were associated with poorer performance. (1)         


Happiness and Your Baby

Few studies have investigated the relation between maternal happiness during pregnancy, birth outcomes, and child development. We measured varying degrees of happiness experienced by mothers while they were pregnant. We found that women who were happier during pregnancy were less likely to have a preterm birth. We also found that toddlers with advanced cognitive development at two years of age were more likely to have happy mothers. These findings are not surprising but are unique because most research focuses on stress, anxiety and depression during pregnancy. These results are among the first to find that a mother's happiness during pregnancy has a positive influence on the development of her baby.


Development of Boys and Girls

Did you know that you are more likely to have a baby boy than a baby girl? In developed countries like the United States, there are more baby boys born each year than there are baby girls (Mathews et al., 2005). However, environmental influences on a population can change this ratio. In fact, if a population experiences hardship (such as starvation), it results in the births of more girls than boys (Song, 2012). Experiences during pregnancy also affect boy and girl babies differently. For example, we found that baby boys were more physically mature at birth if their mothers had lower levels of the hormone cortisol early in pregnancy. Baby girls were not affected by these early hormone levels, rather, they were more physically mature if their mothers had higher levels of cortisol later in pregnancy (Ellman et al., 2008). Prenatal experiences also influence boys and girls differently when it comes to their temperament and levels of childhood anxiety. We found that mothers who had lower levels of cortisol late in pregnancy had baby girls with less fearful temperament at 2 months of age, and less anxiety at 6-9 years of age (Davis et al., 2007; Davis et al., 2012). Temperament and anxiety were not associated with cortisol exposure for boys. These findings suggest that lower levels of cortisol late in pregnancy may be protective for the emotional development of girls, but not for boys. 

Children's Brain Development 

Children's Brain Development Benefits from Longer Gestation  
During pregnancy, a baby's brain is developing very rapidly. In the Brain Imaging study, we are interested in learning more about how a baby's brain develops before he or she is born, and what types of things can have lasting effects on this development.
The results we will be discussing here are based on a sample of 100 children ages 6-10 who were born early (33 preterm) or on time (67 full-term). All children in this study were healthy at birth. In this analysis, we examined how length of gestation (how long baby stayed in mommy's tummy) might affect the way a baby's brain develops. We also wanted to see if there were any differences in the brain development of girls and boys.
We measured brain development in two ways. First, we have children complete some assessments from the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children, which measure things like spatial reasoning and problem solving abilities. Secondly, we measured the amount of gray matter in each child's brain using a 7-minutes Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scan. Gray matter is the part of the brain that does the "thinking" or generating of information.


Figure 1 demonstrates that female children who were born later have higher assessment scores at 6-10 years of age. This associated between gestational age and assessment score was not seen in male children.


Additionally, we looked at how length of gestation might affect the amount of gray matter in the brain. Figure 2 shows that longer gestation was also associated with more gray matter in certain parts of the brain (these parts are highlighted in yellow, orange, and red). Again, the effect was stronger for females than males, suggesting that female children's brain development benefits greatly from longer gestation, while brain development in males does not seem to be as highly influence by length of gestation. In short, longer gestation is better, especially for girls!

Fetal Development 

Our office conducts many studies aimed at learning more about how the prenatal environment can affect a child's development both before and after birth. We'd like to take this opportunity to share with you some interesting findings from some of our previous studies.
During pregnancy, the placenta begins to manufacture many different hormones, which play an important role in the regulation of pregnancy and the development of the fetus. One such hormone is called corticotrophin releasing hormone (CRH) which has been called the "placental clock" because it helps to determine when the baby will be born. Women who deliver preterm have higher levels of placental CRH as compared to women who deliver full term (Sandman et al., 2006). We have also recently shown that placental CRH plays a role in maturing the fetus (Class et al., 2008).
Beginning around the 6th month of pregnancy, the fetus acquires the ability to hear and respond to sounds that occur outside of the womb. In a previous study, we saw pregnant women three times during their third trimesters. At each visit, we applied a vibroacoustic stimulus (a short vibration and tone) to the mother's stomach. This is the same stimulus typically used by obstetricians to wake up the fetus. We then measured the fetus' heart rate response to the stimulus.

figure 1




As you can see in Figure 1, older fetuses produced a larger heart rate response to this experience than younger fetuses. This is evidence that these older fetuses are more mature because they can hear and process this information.






Interestingly, levels of placental CRH also had an important influence on the development of the fetus. By the start of the 3rd trimester, fetuses that experienced lower levels of placental CRH were already producing a heart rate response to the auditory stimulus. In contrast, fetuses exposed to high levels of placental CRH did not show this response until later in the 3rd trimester. This study was recently published in the Journal of Developmental Neuroscience.