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How genetic and environmental factors affect children

4/5/04. By the Public Health Genetics Unit

A group of US federal agencies are collaborating on a new project designed to study how genetic and environmental factors affect children. Researchers plan to use that information to identify potential threats to their health.

The National Children's Study (NCS) combines the efforts of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Environmental Protection Agency. Approval for the NCS came as part of US legislation, the Children's Health Act 2000.The NCS will follow 100 000 children from before birth to age 21.

Pregnant women will be recruited in the beginning stages of the study. Early information, such as the woman's antenatal diet, any exposure to chemicals, and their general health and emotional state will be recorded. Over the years, researchers will examine environmental factors that may affect the children.

'Environmental' is defined broadly, including natural and man-made environmental factors, biological and chemical factors, physical surroundings, social factors, behavioural influences and outcomes, genetics, and cultural and family influences and differences. This will be done by conducting physical, mental, emotional and developmental examinations of the children, as well as interviewing parents and environmental sampling of their homes, with a hope to understanding the role of such factors in health and disease. For example, they will ask parents to report such things as how much television the child watches, whether they attend a day-care, how the child is disciplined and what kind of foods the child eats. With this data, researchers may be able to answer questions such as does attending a day-care influence a child's developmental growth or do vaccines cause autism?

Several working groups on specialist subjects have been set up, including ones that will focus on specific areas such as exposure to chemical agents, injury, gene-environment interactions, medicines and pharmaceuticals, fertility and early pregnancy, birth defects, development and behaviour, repository issues, and ethics.

The Ethics Working Group will be looking at the ethics of how the study will be conducted, such as issues of recruitment, confidentiality of data and samples and feedback of information to participants. An Ethics Resource Guide for the NCS will be prepared. The Repository Working Group will be responsible for how samples will be collected, recorded, stored, etc. Planning work continues but the NCS sponsors are planning to begin work in 2006.

Article courtesy of the Public Health Genetics Unit .

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