Project 1

Tobacco Smoke Exposure, Epigenetics and Cognitive Deficits in Children

Project Co-Leaders: Scott Kollins, PhD and Bernard Fuemmeler, PhD
  • Co-Investigator: Cathrine Hoyo, PhD
  • Faculty Development Investigator: Julia Schechter, PhD

Children have different capacities for learning. For some, it takes a lot of effort to learn skills that others pick-up quickly. When a child has difficulty paying attention, is easily distracted, or is always on the go, it can be difficult for him/her to learn how to be successful in the classroom, with their peers, or at home. Often times this can be very distressing for the child and their parents. In some instances, it can lead to a diagnosis of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. NICHES seeks to understand what causes the differences in children with regard to their ability to learn and develop.

The NICHES study wants to know if biological factors, like epigenetics, influence children’s cognitive and behavioral development. One particular biological process we are studying is called epigenetics, which is the study of how genes may work differently as a result of environmental events. To learn more about epigenetics, click here. Epigenetics is an exciting, new area of research in the field of child health and developmental. Duke University is one of the few places in the country that is doing this type of work. Prior research shows that environmental toxins, like second-hand smoke and blood lead levels, influence children’s brain development in-utero and their later cognitive and behavioral capacities. What has yet to be discovered is whether or not epigenetics plays a role in these processes.
The NICHES team believes that there may be epigenetics processes that are both affected by toxins and play a role in children’s brain development. NICHES hopes to identify these biological signals at birth or early in infancy. This would provide an enormous window of opportunity for preventing some of the learning and behavioral problems that children exposed to toxins might be at risk for developing. It may also be possible to develop therapies that can be administered to reduce the effects of early toxin exposure; thereby reducing the risk for cognitive and behavioral impairments in children. Right now there is no way to prevent ADHD or other cognitive and developmental problems. NICHES will help determine whether epigenetic processes can be important in prevention of child cognitive and behavioral developmental problems.