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Your Environment. Your Health.

Duke University

Neurodevelopment and Improving Children’s Health following Environmental Tobacco Smoke (ETS) exposure (NICHES)

Center Overview

Center Location: Durham, NC

Public Health Impacts: Nearly half of the world’s children are exposed to environmental tobacco smoke (ETS), and this exposure is a major risk factor for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The NICHES Children’s Center is performing studies to determine how ETS exposure during early life impacts a child’s risk of developing ADHD. This research is expected to improve the understanding of environmental factors associated with ADHD, and identify new targets for developing treatments.

Primary Environmental Exposures: ETS

Primary Health Outcomes: ADHD, neurobehavioral dysfunction, and epigenetics

Center Details

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Center Investigators

Principal Investigators: Susan Murphy, Ph.D.

Pediatric Health Specialist: Scott Kollins, Ph.D.
Specialties: Clinical psychology

Project 1 Leader: Bernard F. Fuemmeler, Ph.D.

Project 2 Leader: Edward Levin, Ph.D.

Project 3 Leader: Susan Murphy, Ph.D.

Community Outreach & Translation Core Leader: Rochelle Schwartz-Bloom

Faculty Development Investigator: Julia Schechter, Ph.D.

Center Description & Activities

The NICHES Children’s Center seeks to understand how ETS exposure increases the risk of ADHD through epigenetic alterations. Epigenetic changes modify gene expression without changing the genetic code. Researchers are studying data that comes from children participating in the Newborn Epigenetics Study (NEST), which is following the children of more than 2,500 women who were recruited during pregnancy.

The center integrates animal, cell, and clinical studies to identify how epigenetic changes caused by developmental ETS exposure are expressed in the brain and how these changes influence neurobehavioral dysfunction in children. Center members will determine whether these changes are also detectable in the blood as part of an effort to discern an epigenetic signature of developmental ETS exposure. Center work may result in development of clinically-relevant biomarkers and/or targets for development of novel treatments. The center shares its findings to inform the public about the risks of environmental tobacco smoke exposure on the health of pregnant women, children, and potentially future generations.

Project 1: Tobacco Smoke Exposure, Epigenetics, and Cognitive Deficits in Children

Project Leader: Bernard F. Fuemmeler, Ph.D.

This project combines biological and behavioral data to evaluate the associations of ETS exposure on cognitive and neurobehavioral outcomes across early development and examines the role of exposure-induced DNA methylation changes on these outcomes. The data comes from children participating in NEST.

Project 2: Mechanisms of Neurobehavioral Dysfunction from Developmental Nicotine and Tobacco

Project Leader: Edward Levin, Ph.D.

Using rat models and cultured neuronal cells, researchers are studying how early life ETS exposure affects the development of neurons, neural circuits, and behavior. This project will model nicotine and smoke exposure during development to see how they affect attention, memory, and impulsiveness, as assessed in project 1.

Project 3: Epigenomic Consequences of Early Life Environmental Tobacco Smoke Exposure

Project Leader: Susan Murphy, Ph.D.

The placenta serves as a key organ for defining the environment encountered by a developing fetus. In this project, researchers are using advanced techniques to examine epigenetic and gene expression alterations in the placenta in relation to exposure and health outcomes. Epigenetic changes modify gene expression without changing the genetic code.

Community Outreach & Translation Core

Core Leader: Rochelle Schwartz-Bloom

The Community Outreach and Translation Core (COTC) plans to translate the center’s findings using a social-media approach that engages the community stakeholders in the development of the communication materials. The goal of this science education approach is to help the public grasp the importance of the impact of exposure to toxins such as environmental tobacco smoke on the health of their children so that they can make appropriate decisions to abstain from smoking tobacco products and to avoid exposure to others who smoke.