Numerous studies have suggested that when expecting and new mothers are stressed, hormonal changes not only impact the mother’s health, but also affect the baby’s development.

But unpacking these reports can be complicated.

In addition to the genetic traits inherited from the baby’s parents, other factors, including epigenetic modifications occurring in utero or after birth, nutrition, feeding habits, sleep hygiene, home conditions, and mother-baby interactions, can all influence brain development during the first few months of life.

“Our lab is focused on getting a comprehensive view of how mothers impact infant brain development,” said Brittany Howell, an assistant professor at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC.

Howell’s research program blends biological and behavioral analysis to capture a wide range of factors implicated in healthy human brain development.

Researchers on her team will analyze and compare breast milk composition, feeding habits, stress levels, fecal microbiology, social behavior, and brain imaging data.

“We want to understand how the mother’s health and behavior influence infant brain development so we can define what the brain needs to develop optimally,” said Howell, who is also an assistant professor in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences’ Department of Human Development and Family Science.

Her lab starts recruiting new mothers to participate in longitudinal research studies in early 2020.

Prior to joining Virginia Tech’s faculty in August, Howell was a postdoctoral associate at the University of Minnesota’s Institute of Child Development, where she was involved in developing the UNC/UMN Baby Connectome Project and BCP-Enriched, which characterized brain and behavioral development of infants during the first five years of life.

Howell grew up in New Hampshire. She earned a bachelor’s degree from Tulane University and a doctoral degree in neuroscience from Emory University, where she studied the impact of early adversity and stress.