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Your Environment. Your Health.

Columbia University Health Sciences

Columbia Center for Children's Environmental Health

Center Overview

Center Location: New York, NY

Public Health Impacts: The Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health (CCCEH) is studying how common air pollutants called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) may affect children’s brain development and risk of obesity. Understanding how PAHs are associated with these outcomes is necessary to ensure the appropriate policies and interventions to protect children’s health.

Primary Environmental Exposures: PAHs

Primary Health Outcomes: Cognitive, emotional, behavioral, and obesity problems

Center Details

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Center Investigators

Principal Investigators: Frederica Perera, Dr.P.H., Ph.D. and Bradley S. Peterson, M.D.

Pediatric Health Specialists: Rachel Miller, M.D. and Amy Margolis, Ph.D.
Specialties in: Pulmonary disease, critical care medicine, allergy and immunology; educational psychology and pediatric neuropsychology

Project 1 Leader: Virginia Rauh, Sc.D.

Project 2 Leader: Andrew Rundle, Dr. P.H.

Project 3 Leader: Bradley S. Peterson, M.D.

Community Outreach & Translation Core Leader: David Evans, Ph.D.

Center Description & Activities

Since 1998, the CCCEH has studied the long-term health effects of urban pollutants on children raised in minority neighborhoods of inner-city communities. Investigators have followed a group of children in New York City from the time they were in the womb to determine whether exposure to pollutants might make children more prone to obesity or lead to problems with learning and behavior later in life. These children are now reaching adolescence.

Building on their prior research findings in this group of children, researchers are continuing to test their hypothesis that prenatal exposures to environmental polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) disrupt development and maturation of brain systems that support self-regulation of thought, emotion, and behavior and that these disturbances create vulnerabilities that lead to cognitive, emotional, behavioral, and obesity problems in the vulnerable period of adolescence.

Project 1: The Impact of PAH Exposure on Adolescent Neurodevelopment: Disruption of Self-regulatory Processes

Project Leader: Virginia Rauh, Sc.D.

Researchers are investigating the effects of prenatal PAH exposure to determine associations between this exposure and deficits in reasoning, attention control, conflict resolution, inhibitory control, and emotional control as well as mood disturbances, high risk behaviors, and persistent attention deficit hyperactivity (ADHD) symptoms in adolescence. They will look for distinctive disruptions in development from early childhood through ages 15 to 17 years. This study provides a unique opportunity to follow an existing cohort to fully observe and better understand the longer-term developmental impacts of PAH.

Project 2: The Impact of PAH Exposure on Childhood Growth Trajectories and Visceral Adipose Tissue Mass in Adolescence: Linkages to Disrupted Self-regulatory Processes

Project Leader: Andrew Rundle, Dr. P.H.

This project will determine whether the effects of prenatal PAH exposures on growth continue into adolescence, which is important because overweight or obesity that persists from childhood into adolescence is likely to continue into adulthood. Researchers are assessing associations with obesity at ages 15 to 17 by using MRI to measure abdominal visceral adipose tissue mass, the component of total fat mass most directly linked to future health risks.

Project 3: An MRI Study of the Effects of Prenatal and Early Childhood PAH Exposure on Brain Maturation and Its Mediating Influences on Adverse Adolescent Outcomes

Project Leader: Bradley S. Peterson, M.D.

For this study, researchers are analyzing MRI scans acquired at ages 9 to 12, and ages 15 to 17, to see if early PAH exposure disrupts the structure, function, and metabolism of brain systems that support a person’s capacity for self-regulation. They are also examining whether PAH-related disturbances in these systems are tied to problems such as substance use, depression, ADHD symptoms, and obesity at ages 15 to 17 years. This information will help reveal whether early life PAH exposure continues to derail brain development later in life, or whether compensatory effects in the brain help mitigate adverse effects.

Community Outreach & Translation Core

Core Leader: David Evans, Ph.D.

The Community Outreach and Translation Core (COTC) translates and disseminates research findings on the health impacts of pollution to community residents, policymakers, health-care professionals, and the general public using mobile applications and other innovative strategies. The COTC also assesses how policy change in New York City affects air quality and health outcomes throughout the city and in study participants. The COTC is continuing the Healthy Home, Healthy Child campaign by working with its Community Advisory and Stakeholder Board to incorporate mobile technology into outreach and is working with adolescents to increase their awareness of environmental health and introduce them to tools that can help them adopt healthy behaviors.

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