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Psychologist James Swanson to Head National Children’s Study Vanguard Center

The goal of the NCS is to improve the health and well-being of children by examining how genetic and environmental factors interact with each other and what effect they might have on children's health, whether harmful or helpful.

By Karen Studwell

For the past five years, scientists from the biomedical, behavioral and social sciences have been working with the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to design the National Children's Study (NCS), a longitudinal study authorized by Congress in 2000. The goal of the NCS is to improve the health and well-being of children by examining how genetic and environmental factors interact with each other and what effect they might have on children's health, whether harmful or helpful. Investigators plan to enroll 100,000 children over the next few years in what would be the largest long-term study of children's health and development ever conducted in the United States. Since its authorization in the Child Health Act of 2000, the term "environment" has been defined broadly to include the social and behavioral environment and psychologists have played a role in developing both the study design and the many hypotheses that are to be studied.

Some of the topics to be examined in the NCS include the impact of stress during pregnancy on fetal development, birth defects and pregnancy-related problems, injuries, asthma, obesity and diabetes, and behavior, school readiness, learning, and mental health disorders. In addition, the tremendous amount of data collected by the NCS study centers will provide a rich resource for future researchers to use to answer their own questions about the relationship between environmental exposures and child health or developmental outcomes.

While future funding for the study remains uncertain, initial steps to implement the study continue. In September, the NCS program office announced that the initial Vanguard Center contracts had been awarded to six centers across the country. Each Vanguard Center will begin recruiting participants and pilot testing the NCS protocol. Psychologist James Swanson is one of the six principal investigators awarded a contract for the Vanguard Center located at the University of California-Irvine with the Children's Hospital of Orange County for Orange County, CA. Swanson worked with a group of nearly fifty scientists to put together the proposal and has established a steering committee that will work on the next phase of recruiting participants and data collection. Initial results should be available around 2010, under the current timeline. The NCS program office has selected a total of 105 communities across the country to participate in the study, but further competitions may be delayed until additional funds are provided to the study.

Swanson, a developmental psychologist who specializes in research and treatment of children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), sees the NCS as an extraordinary opportunity for psychologists and other scientists to answer research questions with much more statistical clarity than traditionally permitted with smaller studies. Having spent years focused on treatment, Swanson is excited to get to the root causes of conditions such as ADHD and diseases that could lead to cost-saving prevention strategies. "If we could identify the factors involved in prematurity and could decrease the rate prematurity by even two percent, we would save $2 billion in one year in health care costs," says Swanson.
Swanson encourages other psychologists, particularly young investigators, to get involved in the study by first reviewing the proposed list of possible future sites for the study and collaborating with other researchers to work on a proposal together. The full list of proposed locations is available online at the National Children's Study web page.

While the NCS could provide scientists with a wealth of information and a large database for future research questions, the price tag for the study is currently forecasted at nearly $3 billion over the next 20 years. With meager increases in funding for the NIH in the coming years, it is uncertain how the NCS program office can sustain the momentum needed to fully implement the NCS without risking the long-term health of the investigator-initiated research programs, particularly at the NICHD. For now, scientists are hopeful that preliminary data may generate enough excitement about the feasibility and results of the NCS to draw support from places other than NIH to ensure that the study moves forward as planned.

Learn more about the National Children's Study.