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Neurodevelopmental Research Program

Current Projects

Does reducing maternal prenatal depressive symptoms benefit child brain and behavioral development?

Maternal depression is one of the most common prenatal complications, affecting 13-40% of pregnant women, and has profound implications for the developing child. Children whose mothers experience depression during pregnancy are three to five times more likely to experience depression in their lifetime. Prenatal maternal depression bestows risk for later child psychopathology through effects on the developing fetal brain, leading to altered neural development, increased stress reactivity, greater negative emotional reactivity, and reduced cognitive control in childhood.
The Care Project is a large randomized control trial funded by the NIMH (R01MH109662) that will break new ground by testing whether reducing maternal depressive symptoms during pregnancy affects the development of infants' pathophysiological risk mechanisms for later emerging anxiety and depression.
After an initial study visit consisting of psychological and biological measures, women will be randomly assigned to one of two groups:
Maternity Support Services (usual standard of care for prenatal depression)
or momcare
MOMCare (interpersonal therapy, an empirically supported intervention for prenatal depression)
Maternal biological and psychological measures will be collected longitudinally from pregnancy through 12 months postpartum. Infants will be evaluated at birth, 2-weeks, 6-months, and 12-months. Infants will be assessed across four units of analysis: 1) brain circuitry (MRI, DTI, EEG), 2) physiology (cortisol reactivity and regulation), 3) behavior (eye-tracking attention tasks and observation), and 4) maternal report.
To learn more about the CARE project or to inquire about participation, visit our brochure.


Fragmented Early Life Environment Influences Emotional and Cognitive Vulnerabilities during Childhood and Adolescence

Mental disorders affect 15 to 20% of the US population, primarily originate early in life, have a peak onset of disease during adolescence, and vulnerabilities are sex dependent. This project is part of a NIMH Silvio O. Conte Center (P50 MH 096889) and will test specific hypotheses about how prenatal and early postnatal maternal signals, experienced during transitional periods of rapid changes in brain and behavior, determine risk for cognitive and emotional vulnerabilities to mental illness. The long term consequences of exposure to fragmented maternal signals during fetal and early postnatal life will be tested with a prospective longitudinal investigation of two cohorts followed from early in gestation and assessed during infancy/toddlerhood and childhood/adolescence. This project will provide new information on the role of prenatal and early postnatal exposures on cognitive and emotional well-being. Further, this center provides a unique opportunity to gain new insights into the mechanisms by which early experiences influence brain and behavior with collaborations between animal and human researchers. 
Created in 2013 and funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, the Conte Center integrates basic neuroscience research with studies of prenatal, postnatal and adolescent brain development using diverse and complementary approaches spanning genes to behavior.  

Prenatal Influences on Child Brain Development


Rapid changes in the developing fetal brain render it vulnerable to both organizing and disorganizing influences. Current research evaluates the consequences of prenatal influences such as synthetic glucocorticoids exposure, maternal stress, and maternal infection for child brain development (evaluated with structural MRI, fMRI and DTI). We have recently published in Biological Psychiatry evidence that fetal exposure to synthetic glucocorticoids has neurologic consequences that persist for at least 6 to 10 years. Children with fetal glucocorticoid exposure have a thinner cortex primarily in the rostral anterior cingulate (rACC). Consistent with the possibility that these neurologic changes may indicate prodromal risk for mental health problems, we show that a thinner rACC predicts increased child affective problems.

Prenatal Exposure to Maternal Stress and Stress Hormones Influences Infant and Child Development


These projects evaluate the impact of naturally occurring individual variations in prenatal maternal psychosocial stress and stress hormones exposures on fetal, infant and child development. Prospective evaluations of pregnant women and their infants and children determine the influence of prenatal stress exposures on cognitive functioning, temperament and stress regulation. Our data consistently demonstrate that children exposed to higher levels of stress hormones during gestation have heightened HPA axis reactivity, fearful temperament during infancy and anxiety during childhood. Recently we have published in PNAS evidence fetal programming of child affective problems may be mediated through effects of maternal cortisol on the development of the amygdala.


Prenatal Exposure to Glucocorticoids has Persisting Consequences for Development


This 5-year longitudinal study, supported by NICHD (R01 HD065823), implements a novel approach to identify maternal-fetal pairs who are at risk for negative consequences associated with a standard of care for women in preterm labor, administration of synthetic glucocorticoids. Glucocorticoid treatment clearly improves survival among preterm infants. There is, however, compelling evidence from both animal and human studies that exposure to excess glucocorticoids during the prenatal period is a risk factor for suppressed growth, HPA axis dysregulation, increased fear and anxiety, impaired cognitive functioning, and disrupted brain development. The focus of this project is to determine how the placental corticotrophin-releasing hormone (pCRH) response to synthetic glucocorticoids contributes to shortened gestation and susceptibility for common neuropsychiatric and neurodevelopmental disorders.
By performing prospective evaluations of HPA and placental responses to GC treatment and linking these profiles to gestational length and infant development, this project will provide new and potentially critical information to clinicians faced with the decision of whether or not to administer GCs to pregnant women. Further, this project will inform our understanding of the mechanisms underlying fetal programming and would lead to the development of new risk models for the identification of individuals who are at risk for shortened gestation and who are on a developmental trajectory indicating risk for psychopathology and cognitive dysfunction later in life providing an opportunity for early intervention.

The Synergistic Relation between the Prenatal and the Early Postnatal Environment




Several ongoing projects include the evaluation of the joint role of the prenatal and the early postnatal environment in the determination of child health and development. These data will address important questions such as: "Can high quality maternal care ameliorate the negative effects of prenatal stress?" and "Does the prenatal environment prepare the infant for functioning in the postnatal world?" 



Preconception and Prenatal Influences on Child Development


This project supported by NICHD (R01 HD72021) is a unique investigation of the role of maternal stress prior to pregnancy on both prenatal outcomes and infant and child development. This multi-site collaborative project involves collaborations with researchers at University of Denver, University of California, Los Angeles, North Western, and Virginia Technical Institute. This project involves a high risk sample of mothers and children and will allow us to evaluate both psychological and biological factors during preconception and pregnancy that are associated with child outcomes. This project will assess the association between early life influences and child emotional, cognitive and physical health outcomes.