black and white photo of a baby's feet

UA, UAB Partner with NIH to Study Healthy Child Brain Development

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – A diverse and multidisciplinary team of researchers at The University of Alabama at Birmingham Marnix E. Heersink School of Medicine and The University of Alabama was awarded a $7.1 million grant over five years to conduct a comprehensive study of risk and protective factors for healthy brain development in children.

Participants will be enrolled from a diverse urban and rural population across the state of Alabama as part of a 25-site national consortium.

The HEALthy Brain and Child Development Study will establish a large cohort of pregnant women and follow them and their children for at least 10 years. Findings from this cohort will provide a template of normative neurodevelopment to assess how prenatal and perinatal exposures to substances and environments may alter developmental trajectories. This research infrastructure can be leveraged for urgent health needs, such as the current impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on development, or future health and environmental crises.

This longitudinal study will collect data on pregnancy and fetal development; infant and early childhood structural and functional brain imaging; anthropometrics; medical history; family history; bio specimens; and social, emotional and cognitive development. Knowledge gained from this research will help identify factors that confer risk or resilience for known developmental effects of prenatal and postnatal exposure to certain drugs and environmental exposures, including risk for future substance use, mental disorders, and other behavioral and developmental problems.

“The early years are a period of rapid brain growth when environmental exposures can have a significant impact,” said Dr. Myriam Peralta-Carcelen, professor of pediatrics at UAB and Children’s of Alabama and co-director of the UAB Newborn Follow-Up program. “This study is key for understanding the neurodevelopment of children in the state of Alabama, and across the country, so we can intervene early and optimize the outcome for mothers and their children.”

“We are focused on making participation as beneficial as possible for the mother and child,” said Dr. Lea Yerby, associate professor in the UA Department of Community Medicine and Population Health and the Institute for Rural Health Research at the UA College of Community Health Sciences. “Real-life experiences of rural moms and infants are often overlooked and not represented in research, but this project gives the opportunity to learn how the adversities and resilience of rural communities impact children long-term.”

A woman smiles in a professional portrait
Dr. Lea Yerby

UAB will recruit participants through the Comprehensive Addiction in Pregnancy Program, led by Peralta-Carcelen, principal investigator; Yerby, UA study lead; and co-investigators Dr. Brian Casey, director of the UAB Division of Maternal-Fetal Medicine; Dr. Cassandra Newsom, director of the Civitan Autism and Neurodevelopment Research Core; Dr. Namasivayam Ambalavanan, director of the TReNDD program; and team member Suzanne Muir, the Obstetrics Complication Clinic, Jefferson and Blount County departments of Health; and a variety of affiliated neighborhood health centers. Newsom will supervise the assessment of infant neurodevelopment across sites. Ambalavanan will oversee the collection of a wide range of biospecimens from mother and child.

UA will rely on its University Medical Center locations in Tuscaloosa County and rural health care clinics in surrounding counties for recruitment, which serve the state’s historically disenfranchised communities in the Black Belt. The project is one of the strategic themes of the Alabama Life Research Institute, led by co-investigators Dr. Sharlene Newman, and will use the new MRI facility coming to UA.

Dr. Caitlin Hudac, a developmental cognitive neuroscience and co-investigator, will direct the collection of infant EEG data, while Dr. Holly Horan, co-investigator and biocultural medical anthropologist, is developing a health navigator program for new mothers. In addition, three faculty physicians from UA are critical parts of the project. They include Dr. John McDonald, associate professor and chair of obstetrics and gynecology; Dr. Catherine Lavendar, associate professor and director of the Family Medicine OB Fellowship; and Dr. Brian Gannon, associate professor and director of the Pediatrics Clinic.

This award is part of the Phase II HBCD Study, in which a fully integrated, collaborative infrastructure will support the collection of a large dataset that will enable researchers to analyze brain development in opioid-exposed and non-drug-exposed infants and children across a variety of regions and demographics.

HBCD is funded by 10 institutes and offices at the National Institutes of Health, and the Helping to End Addiction Long-termSM Initiative, or NIH HEAL InitiativeSM, and is led by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.


Adam Jones, UA communications, 205-348-4328,; Hannah Echols, UAB communications, 205-704-2939,