Families Sought for Study on Child Brain Development

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – Participants from West Alabama have the opportunity to enroll in the largest long-term study of early brain and child development in the United States.

Researchers at The University of Alabama are part of a national initiative to gather a large cohort of participating families to better understand how the brain develops. Researchers want to understand the effects of exposure to social factors, substances and other environmental conditions during pregnancy and after birth. It will also identify family resilience factors that help overcome adversity.

The study is enrolling individuals in the second trimester of pregnancy. Knowledge gained from this research will have lasting impacts on future generations of children. All assessments and procedures for the study are free. Participants receive compensation for their time. 

HEALthy Brain and Child Development Study seeks participants from a diverse urban and rural population across 27 recruitment sites at universities and research hospitals across the U.S.

UA will rely on its University Medical Center locations on campus and rural health care clinics in surrounding counties for recruitment, which serve the state’s historically disenfranchised communities in the Black Belt. However, families do not have to be UMC patients to participate in the years-long study.

UA will use its MRI Research Facility for brain imaging over the course of the study.

The study seeks participants from the following counties:


“This national study will benefit from having local and rural Alabamians represented,” said Dr. Lea Yerby, associate professor in the UA department of community medicine and population health at the UA College of Community Health Sciences. “Our community is rarely represented in federal research, so this is an opportunity for our families to participate and have a voice in research.”

Understanding Child Development

Researchers will collect information during pregnancy and through early childhood, including:

  • Pictures of the child’s brain
  • Growth measurements
  • Samples of blood and saliva
  • Medical and family history surveys
  • Information about social, emotional, and cognitive development

The information will help families and society better understand child development and how brains and behaviors are affected by experience and environment, Yerby said.

Participating families will receive any medically relevant findings from MRI scans and development assessments. The study will also provide connections to community resources and additional support through pregnancy and early childhood development.

A patient lies flat on an MRI scanner.
Rishi Deshpande, technical director for research MRI, demonstrates the MRI scanner at UA.

UAB, NIH Partnership

UA is partnered with researchers at The University of Alabama at Birmingham Marnix E. Heersink School of Medicine as part of a grant expected to provide about $7.1 million over five years to conduct the comprehensive study of risk and protective factors for healthy brain development in children.

The study at UAB is led by Dr. Myriam Peralta-Carcelen, professor of neonatology and co-director of the Newborn Follow-Up program, and Dr. Cassandra Newsom, associate professor in neurobiology and director of the Civitan Translational ASD/NND Research Core.

Yerby and Dr. Sharlene Newman, executive director of the Alabama Life Research Institute, lead the UA study.

The Helping to End Addiction Long-term Initiative, or NIH HEAL Initiative along with numerous institutes and offices at the National Institutes of Health fund the HBCD Study. It is led by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Information on Joining Study

Visit the study’s website or contact site coordinator Sally Sutherland at 205-348-6360 or hbcd@ua.edu.

The University of Alabama, part of The University of Alabama System, is the state’s flagship university. UA shapes a better world through its teaching, research and service. With a global reputation for excellence, UA provides an inclusive, forward-thinking environment and nearly 200 degree programs on a beautiful, student-centered campus. A leader in cutting-edge research, UA advances discovery, creative inquiry and knowledge through more than 30 research centers. As the state’s largest higher education institution, UA drives economic growth in Alabama and beyond.


Adam Jones, UA Strategic Communications, 205-348-4328, adam.jones@ua.edu