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Early environmental, psychosocial and genetic determinants of neurobehavioral and emotional problems (NBEPs) in the first 4 years of life: the ENGENE study

Disentangling the risk factors for NBEPs in early life

01/01/2023 - 31/12/2025
Mireia Gascon Merlos
La Marató de TV3

In Europe, children (<18 years) make up ~25% of the population, and around 10% of children have neurobehavioral and emotional problems (NBEPs), such as temperament problems, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), anxiety disorders, depression disorders, among others. Moreover, a recent study in Catalonia (Spain) reported that 18.3% of the students aged 5-17 years were affected by at least one NBEPs.

These numbers highlight the importance of understanding the factors that increase the risk of developing such disorders, particularly during pregnancy and the first years of life, when the brain is developing and therefore is more vulnerable. Indeed, children with NBEPs, particularly when these are underdiagnosed, are at higher risk of academic failure, social emotional and behavioral difficulties, and poorer mental health.

These children are also more likely to drop out of school, be unemployed, be involved in criminality, or have substance use disorders during their youth and adulthood. Consequently, child health and development are significant drivers of the well-being of individuals, families and countries. It is known that NBEPs have a genetic susceptibility component, but scientific evidence also points to multiple biological and environmental factors and their interactions with the genetic susceptibility to explain the appearance of such diseases since early life.

In 2018 a new project, the Barcelona Life Study Cohort (BiSC), was started with the aim to evaluate the impact of the exposure to air pollution and other urban-related exposures (including noise, green and blue spaces, altogether known as “urbanome”) during pregnancy and first years of life on children’s development.

The project includes more than 1000 children, and neuropsychological and mental health evaluations at different points in time until the age of 28 months have been conducted.We also have information on fetal growth, placental function, neuroimaging (neurosonography during pregnancy and MRI in the first month of life) and a wide range of sociodemographic data.

Now, at the age of 48 months, we want to evaluate neurodevelopmental, behavioral and emotional problems in these children and establish trajectories of the neurodevelopment and mental disorders throughout time. We will also collect information on sociodemographics, parental mental health and conflict resolution abilities, and home and school “urbanome” (air pollution, noise exposure, green, blue and gray spaces) at the age of 48 months (we already have detailed “urbanome” information during pregnancy).

The overall aim is to identify genetic and pre and postnatal psychosocial and environmental risk factors and gene-environment interactions in the occurrence and evolution of NBEPs in the first four years of life. In addition, taking advantage of the existing data, we will explore the mediation role of fetal growth, placental function, and brain structures and functions in the associations mentioned above. We expect that our results will contribute to better understanding the origins of NBEPs in early life and facilitate the implementation of targeted policies and strategies for prevention and intervention to genuinely protect the mental health of children, but also of the entire population.

Total funding

299.979,53 €

Nuestro equipo


ISGlobal team

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