Man looking out over mountain and forest, brain and cells shown as well

Program Description

Every year, an estimated one in five adults in the U.S. are affected by mental illness. The public health burden is immense, as mental health disorders represent the major cause of disability in the U.S. and account for over $300 billion in total national costs per year. Further, the societal burden of these conditions includes loss of work productivity, divorce, suicide, accidents, and accidental drug overdoses. While the exact cause of most mental illnesses is unknown, the interaction between genetic susceptibility and environmental exposures is likely a contributing factor.

Emerging evidence links toxicant exposure with central nervous system and behavior changes consistent with disorders ranging from schizophrenia to depression. These findings suggest that there is a need to broadly incorporate environmental exposures in psychiatric research. Additionally, the identification of environmental risk factors for psychiatric disorders may be a critical component for future effective intervention and prevention strategies.

What Is NIEHS Doing?

NIEHS supports innovative basic, epidemiological, and interdisciplinary research focused on understanding the role of and mechanisms by which environmental exposures disrupt normal brain and behavioral functioning to increase risk for psychiatric disorders. Areas of interest from NIEHS investigators include:

  • Assessment of developmental neurotoxicant exposure and mental disorder risk in adulthood
  • Investigation of multiple environmental factors (microbial pathogens such as viruses, diet substance use, exercise level, stress) in combination with toxicant exposures may protect or facilitate progression of a psychiatric condition
  • Identification of common neuronal mechanisms and circuits underlying mental disorder susceptibility following environmental exposure
  • Analysis of the interaction of environmental exposures, peripheral (e.g., gut) and central nervous system signaling on mood and mental health

Examples of the types of diseases studied by grant recipients include:

  • Anxiety disorder
  • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Major depression
  • Schizophrenia

Examples of environmental exposures studied by grant recipients include:

  • Air pollutants
  • Chlorinated compounds
  • Metals: lead, zinc, manganese
  • Metal mixtures
  • Organophosphates
  • Persistent organic pollutants
  • Pesticides
  • Polychlorinated biphenyls
  • Tobacco smoke


  • NIEHS request for applications (RFAs) supporting basic/fundamental research exploring the impact of environmental exposures on psychiatric-related outcomes RFA-ES-22-008 (R01) and RFA-ES-22-009 (R21)
  • NIEHS program announcements supporting environmental exposure and psychiatric research PAR-19-385 (R21) and PAR-19-386 (R01)
  • Beyond the looking glass: recent advances in understanding the impact of environmental exposures on neuropsychiatric disease. Neuropsychopharmacology 45:1086–1096.
  • Environmental Risks for Psychiatric Disorders, Exploring Biological Mechanisms. Held March 21-22, 2017.

For additional information

For additional information about current research grants funded by NIEHS, visit our Who We Fund tool.

Program Leads

Jonathan A. Hollander, Ph.D.
Jonathan A. Hollander, Ph.D.
Health Scientist Administrator
Tel 984-287-3269
[email protected]
P.O. Box 12233
Mail Drop K3-15
Durham, NC 27709
Kimberly Gray, Ph.D.
Kimberly Gray, Ph.D.
Health Scientist Administrator
Tel 984-287-3262
[email protected]
530 Davis Dr
530 Davis Drive (Keystone Bldg)
Durham, NC 27713
Cindy Lawler, Ph.D.
Cindy Lawler, Ph.D.
Chief, Genes, Environment, and Health Branch
Tel 984-287-3280
[email protected]
P.O. Box 12233
Mail Drop K3-15
Durham, NC 27709