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Washington University Receives $4 Million Gift to Study Children’s Brains

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Washington University has received a $4 million gift to study how adversity and neglect in early childhood affect the development of the brain.

The gift, made from the estate of emeritus trustee Walter Metcalfe Jr. and his wife Cynthia, will further the research efforts of Joan L. Luby, a child psychiatrist at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.

Luby’s earlier research has shown that various forms of adversity, including poverty and neglect, increase the risk of developing learning difficulties, clinical depression, and behavioral problems among children.

“Her continuing efforts to understand the negative effects of poverty and neglect on the young brain and developing therapies to combat those effects, is critically important and inspirational,” David H. Perlmutter, executive vice chancellor for medical affairs, said. “We are so fortunate to have the vision of the Metcalfes to invest in and support research like Joan’s that is innovating in this most challenging area of medicine.”

Through the Metcalfes’ gift, the researchers will explore how the environment in which children live affects their gene expression. The team of researchers, led by Luby, will collect saliva samples from infants at birth and at 12, 24 and 36 months of age to analyze genetic information.

The team will also recruit 370 pregnant mothers in the St. Louis-area to measuring stress and adversity experienced during pregnancy and after the children are born.

“This gift provides the freedom and early opportunity to build on the existing NIH-funded study immediately as it actively assesses the effects of environmental stressors on brain development and overall health in the first three years of life to more rapidly influence public health,” Luby said.

Luby added that her research project has a very high potential for public health payoff.

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