Seed Grant Awards, 2015-2016

Congratulations to the 2015-2016 Seed Grant Award Recipients! Scroll down to see project abstracts.

Placental biomarkers of prenatal hormone exposure and neurodevelopmental risk

Frances Champagne (Psychology)
Martha Welch (Psychiatry, Pediatrics, and Pathology & Cell Biology)
Ronald Wapner (Obstetrics and Gynecology)

Prenatal exposure to sex hormones (i.e. androgens and estrogens) has profound effects on neurodevelopment with lifelong implications for mental health. Fetal exposure to aberrant levels of sex hormones alters sexual dimorphism (i.e. degree of feminization or masculinization; sex differences in brain and behavior) and may contribute to neurodevelopmental disorders, including autism. The placenta, a maternal/fetal endocrine structure that regulates prenatal development, may be critically important for our understanding of the processes that link sex hormones and neurodevelopmental trajectories. The placenta contains high levels of retinoic acid-related (RAR) orphan receptor-alpha (RORA), a transcription factor that regulates aromatase, an enzyme which converts testosterone into estrogen. It has been proposed that RORA expression in the placenta precludes the transfer of maternal testosterone to the fetus. In the current study, we propose to evaluate the mediating role of placental RORA in the relationship between maternal testosterone and fetal testosterone in humans through epigenetic and transcriptional analyses of RORA in placental samples collected from 30 male and 30 female newborns from healthy singleton pregnancies of an ethnically diverse sample of women recruited from community and perinatal centers. Testosterone levels in maternal plasma during pregnancy and fetal cord blood will be assayed and the mediating role of placental RORA expression in the association between maternal and fetal testosterone levels will be determined in this sample. These analyses will form the foundation of a large-scale study profiling placental RORA and related up-stream and down-stream genetic targets in both healthy and high-risk pregnancies (preeclampsia, preterm birth) which will include neurodevelopmental assessment of infants/children and a prospective study in which placental biomarkers of risk and postnatal nurturing interventions are integrated.

Developmental trajectories of executive function and academic achievement in the early elementary school

Anne Conway (Social Work)

Developmental theory and research underscores the salience of individual and environmental factors on the development of EF (Blair & Diamond, 2008; Diamond, 2002). A growing body of research has identified key correlates of children’s EF that may also be antecedents of growth. These include: gender (Vuontela et al., 2003), race/ethnicity (Rhoades et al., 2011), socioeconomic status and parent education (Noble et al., 2005), family income (Raver et al., 2013), family type (Sarsour et al, 2011), low birth weight (Wong et al. 2014), time in kindergarten (Burrage et al., 2008), and primary language spoken at home (Conway et al., under review).
The identification of child and family factors at kindergarten entry that predict EF and achievement trajectories groups can enhance our understanding of children most at-risk and factors that may attenuate risk. Investigating child and maternal factors in the prediction of EF and achievement is greatly needed to inform and refine existing theoretical models of (1) the development of EF, and (2) achievement. Likewise, findings from these analyses will have important implications for practice and intervention. Identifying subgroups of children most at risk for low math and reading achievement may directly inform for early identification of at-risk children, risk reduction efforts, enhance learning and achievement. This will also have implications for whether children with early childhood risks may be a particularly vulnerable subgroup that may need to be followed for math and reading learning and achievement.