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The National Institutes of Health has awarded a grant of up to $14 million to a research team co-led by Dr. Alison Hipwell to study the preconception effects of stress on childhood development.  The grant is part of the NIH’s Environmental influences on Child Health Outcomes (ECHO) initiative, which has awarded $157 million in NIH grants to support dozens of longitudinal, cohort studies of mothers and their children.

Dr. Alison Hipwell, Co-Principal Investigator for the project, will collaborate with investigators at the University of Chicago to test the hypothesis that preconception environmental stress in women is an important predictor of children’s neurodevelopment. Dr. Hipwell is also the Co-Principal Investigator of the Pittsburgh Girls Study, a project investigating the effects of family stress and exposure to violence among 2,450 Pittsburgh women who have been studied for the past 16 years, starting when they were children between 5 and 8 years old.  

In the new study, Dr. Hipwell and her colleagues will continue to assess and track those women in the Pittsburgh Girls Study — who are now all between 21 and 24 years old — who get pregnant during the study period.  Based on birth rates, the investigators anticipate that about 800 of the women will likely get pregnant during the study period. Investigators will measure bio-markers of preconception stress exposure and nutrition in the young adult women. Once they become pregnant, participants’ prenatal stress regulation and placental function will be assessed three times, and later, their children’s neurodevelopment will be measured repeatedly across the first three years of life.

There’s been a good amount of research looking at the effects of stress on pregnancy, but we know very little about the effects that prior stress exposure brings to the pregnancy,” said Dr. Hipwell.  She hopes that the project will help to identify the risk factors that lead to pregnancy stress and demonstrate the impact on a child’s development, but also gain a better understanding of what makes some women more resilient or vulnerable to the same contextual risks.

Pitt and the University of Chicago will receive an initial $2.7 million during the first two years, and will be eligible for up to an additional $11.3 million of funding based on their progress.