Virginia Teach researchers are beginning to recruit Southwest Virginians in their second trimester of pregnancy to be part of a nationwide research project at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC that examines brain and child development.

The university is one of 28 recruitment sites nationwide, and the only one in Virginia, representing the National Institutes of Health’s HEALthy Brain and Child Development Study. The purpose is to better understand the long-term effects of environmental factors and exposure to substances such as opioids, tobacco, alcohol, and pollutants on brain development from infancy through early childhood, a time of rapid growth.

The study is part of an effort to address the opioid crisis, which has disproportionately affected rural communities.

Leading the effort for the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC in Roanoke is Assistant Professor Brittany Howell, who was invited to join the study as a site principal investigator in 2022. For the past year, the research team has been refining its recruitment and research methods.

“We’re excited that families in this part of the commonwealth are going to be represented,” Howell said. “We expect that, combined with the data from our colleagues in other parts of the country, we will be able to identify information and interventions that could lead to better health outcomes for children.”

Howell’s expertise is in researching the biological pathways of early experience and maternal influence on infant neurodevelopment. She also holds an appointment in the Department of Human Development and Family Science in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences.

The study draws on experts in neuroscience, developmental science, and public health. At Virginia Tech, Howell is joined by two other principal investigators: Martha Ann Bell, University Distinguished Professor of Psychology in the Virginia Tech College of Science and affiliated professor of human development and family science; and Kathy Hosig, associate professor in the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine and director of the Virginia Tech Center for Public Health Practice and Research.

Researchers will gather data on pregnancy, fetal development, body measurements, and biospecimens. They will conduct infant and early childhood brain imaging, compile medical and family histories, and track social, emotional, and cognitive development. Findings will help identify factors that confer risk and those that support resilience as children grow.

The study covers costs such as time, transportation, and meals. Families are overnight guests in a hotel adjacent to the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute campus for study appointments. For more information on becoming a participant, visit the study website.