Experiences from conception to age six have the most important influence of any time in the life

Objectives 1 & 2

In seeking to achieve my first and second objectives, I lead the APrON (Alberta Pregnancy Outcomes and Nutrition) cohort study of 2200 Alberta families, where I focus specifically on examining the influence of parental perinatal distress (depression, anxiety) on infant development. (In this role I also support other APrON team members in their exploration of the many facets of this complex dataset and have been working toward repositing the APrON dataset in the Child Data Centre of Alberta as a flagship cohort study.) I also collaborate with Dr. Suzanne Tough in following up our APrON cohort to 8 years of age, as part of our Alberta Births Common Data (ABCD) collaboration funded by ACHF, thus plan on evaluating outcomes in 5 and 8 year olds associated with early exposures.

Drawing on a sub-sample of APrON, I also co-lead the Fetal Programming Study (along with Dr. Gerald Giesbrecht, funded by CIHR, ACCFCR) in which we are studying the relationship between maternal perinatal mental distress (anxiety, depression, stressful life events and maternal cortisol) and infant outcomes including Hypothalamic Pituitary Adrenal axis responses and the mediating role of parent-child relationship quality. We have attained substantial funding to follow-up this cohort and are now examining the role that the prenatal and early postnatal environment has:

  • On children’s epigenetic methylation patterns, comparing boys and girls at 3 months of age (funded by NCE Neurodevnet)
  • On children’s cord blood cortisol and inflammatory cytokines (funded by NCE AllerGen, AIHS)
  • On development of atopic disease (e.g. eczema, allergies and asthma) in 18 month olds and mediation by parental sensitivity in early caregiving (funded by NCE Allergen)
  • In interaction with genetic plasticity in prediction of children’s mental health (funded by NCE Neurodevnet)

Most recently, I was very pleased to receive funding from SSHRC to study the association between mothers’ and fathers’ sensitivity to their children, specifically parental reflective function, and how this links to children’s neurodevelopment and mental health. Until now, information about fathers has been a gap in our APrON and Fetal Programming datasets.

Future work will build on the above foundational work and the recently submitted (unsuccessful) CIHR Team grant (based on successful letter of intent--one of 11 selected of more than 80 applications) to further explore epigenetic change over time, associated with early (e.g. prenatal distress) and concurrent (e.g. parent-child relationship qualities) experience, and predictive of children’s mental health disorders. We will also seek to examine brain structure over time, as above, linked to early experience and predictive of children’s mental disorders. Along with my Owerko colleagues, I would like to ultimately link the two lines of inquiry (epigenetics and neuroanatomy) in predicting children’s mental disorders.