University researchers have joined a study that aims to explore the intricacies of a topic that has stumped psychologists for decades: Is it nature or nurture that most affects a developing human being?
To answer this question, researchers from institutions across the country will track the development of 105,000 children in 105 counties. It’s all part of the National Children’s Study, a multi-decade effort to determine the effects of the environment on growing children. Congress mandated the study in 2000 but did not approve funding until 2007. While the first set of results should be ready by 2009, the study is not slated to be completely finished until 2034.
University of Michigan researchers are working with researchers from Wayne State University, Michigan State University and hospitals and clinics around the state to monitor 5,000 children in five counties from before birth until they are 21 years old.
State researchers, including those from the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research, will take on the Michigan portion of the study.
Daniel Keating, the director of the University’s Center for Human Growth and Development, said this study is “unprecedented in scope.”
Because anything could affect a child’s development, the researchers plan to routinely collect samples of air from inside the study subjects’ homes and soil from their yards and neighborhoods to see if they change a developing child.
In addition to physical environmental factors, researchers will also gather data about a child’s social environment by looking at interactions in the home and having parents fill out questionnaires.
These factors will be analyzed along with the children’s genetic makeup in the hope that the missing pieces of the equation will fall into place.
The key will be examining how all of the little pieces of children’s environments interact with their genes and “biological factors in general,” Keating said.
In some cases, the study will track the children before they even exist.
Starting in Wayne County, which includes most of Detroit, the University of Michigan will recruit a sampling team to go door to door to see if there are any women of “childbearing age,” Keating said. If so, the surveyors will follow up with telephone calls on a weekly basis to see if these women become pregnant. They must find 1,000 pregnant women in Wayne County by going door to door. Their goal is to identify 25 percent of the children that will be included in the study prior to conception.
Keating said the study will pay participants. He estimated that a woman who participates from before she conceives until her child is two years old will receive about $500.
“It’s not like a living, but there are payments for every time there’s a visit,” Keating said. “We want to make sure to retain participants.”
The study will pay for some doctors’ visits and ultrasounds for women without insurance becuase testing must take place in a controlled setting. Keating said the aim of the study is to observe developing children in their natural environments. However, in some cases children could potentially receive better care as a result of their participation in the study because their parents would otherwise not have access to quality medical care.
Keating said that the team in charge of assessment would use a variety of statistical modeling techniques to try to control for the study’s impact on the quality of a child’s medical care.
Currently, it’s hard for researchers to pinpoint the source of some developmental diseases because geneticists have failed to provide a genetic template to predict who will and will not have a certain developmental outcome.
But Keating said that with a sample as large as this, researchers would inevitably come across children with certain developmental disorders like asthma and obesity that researchers have been working unsuccessfully to determine the exact cause of for years.
There is strong scientific consensus that the answer must lie with some combination of predisposing genes and environmental factors, and this study could help identify the formula.
Of the $18 million designated to the Michigan Alliance for the National Children’s Study for the first portion of the study, which will investigate Wayne County, $4.4 million will go to the University, Keating said.
He predicted that Wayne would be the most expensive of the five Michigan counties to research, but not by too much because the same number of children will be recruited in each county. He estimated the amount of money devoted to the other counties to be about two-thirds of the amount designated for Wayne County.
The Michigan Research Corridor, consisting of Wayne State University and Michigan State University in addition to the University of Michigan, were recruited to carry out research for the counties of Wayne, Genessee, Lenawee, Traverse and Macomb.
“The Michigan counties represent a fairly good cross section demographically of the whole state,” Keating said.