Researcher awarded $3.2M to study child brain development
May 26, 2023
Author: Leigh Hataway  |   | More about Leigh
Contact: Assaf Oshri  | 706-542-8874  | More about Assaf

The University of Georgia was recently awarded $3.2 million from the National Institutes of Health to study resilience in rural children using neuroimaging technologies.

The BRANCH study, which stands for Building Resiliency and Nurturing Children’s Health, will investigate the development of resilience among low-income children living in rural Georgia areas over five years, starting at age 7.

The overarching goal is to determine how children’s communities affect their neurocognitive development and risk for drug use as adolescents.

“If you really want to prevent drug abuse, you need to start early,” said Assaf Oshri, principal investigator of the study and an associate professor in UGA’s College of Family and Consumer Sciences and the director of the Youth Development Institute at UGA. “Toxic environments and conditions during childhood can promote risky behavior over time. Things like stress related to poverty, unsafe communities or feeling lonely can manifest in physical stress that can affect brain development.

“And that developmental damage can affect where these kids go and what they do as adults.”

Oshri’s previous research has shown that low to moderate stress can be good for you, as it forces your body to optimize brain cognition and function. But there is a limit to how much stress is a good thing.

Once stress levels go above moderate levels, which is common in households struggling to pay bills or keep a roof over their family, that stress becomes toxic.

Constant high levels of stress can actually change the structure of the brain. It can lead to increases in white matter at the expense of gray matter, which is involved in muscle control, decision-making, self-control, emotional regulation and more. Chronic stress can also make people more susceptible to a variety of illnesses ranging from nausea and migraine headaches to high blood pressure and heart disease.

Children are particularly vulnerable to the negative effects of stress because their brains are still developing.

“If a child doesn’t have routine at home and they don’t have the security and the safety of the trust in their environment, how do you expect them to do well in school, behave and be attentive?” Oshri said. “Connecting their environment and trying to understand the psychobiological consequences of it—as we will do in the BRANCH study—can help us design preventive intervention to intervene and reduce risk among children with these environments.”

Oshri hopes the BRANCH study will connect the dots between childhood conditions and brain development not only by interviewing and getting to know the families in the study but also by using MRI scanning technology to assess how stress can affect cognition and neural functioning.

Co-investigators on the project include Lawrence Sweet from the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences Department of Psychology, and the College of Family and Consumer Sciences’ Steven Kogan, Kalsea Koss, Diane Bales and Margaret Caughy.

The study is funded by a grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

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