Pilot Project Recipients Year 12

Exploring Genetic and Environmental Influences on Psychotic Disorders among Adolescents

Study Title: Gene-Environment Interactions in Brain Structure and Distressing Psychotic-like Experiences among Adolescents Over Four Years

PI: Benson Ku

Psychotic-like experiences (PLE) in youth can be categorized as ‘distressing’ and may indicate the development of future psychotic disorders like schizophrenia as children age into adulthood. There’s evidence that suggests that both genetics and the environment, especially the urban environment and socio-economic factors (known together as the “Urban Exposome”), play a role in the development of psychotic disorders. However, how these factors lead to structural brain changes and the development of psychosis is less understood. This study examines distressing PLE in approximately 10,868 participants from the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) study, the largest long-term study of brain development and child health in the United States to examine this interaction and identify children and adolescents at high risk of persistent and distressing psychological disorders. By identifying the interactions between genes and socio-environmental factors found in urban areas like air pollutants and socioeconomic deprivation we can better predict alterations in brain structure and the progression of distressing PLE in children and adolescents.

How this study advances exposome science: This research will advance exposome science by investigating the role of socio-environmental factors (The Urban Exposome) and their interaction with genetics in the development of distressing PLE among children and adolescents. By considering the unique challenges faced by diverse populations, including communities of color in urban environments, this study ensures that future individual and community-level interventions are more representative and inclusive.

Measuring “forever chemicals” in North Georgia communities.

Study Title: Assessing the impact of state of the art water treatment plant on pFAS reduction among Rome, GA residents

PI: Melanie Pearson

Drinking water in Rome and Calhoun, Georgia, has elevated levels of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) from local industry. These substances are known as “forever chemicals” because they are nearly indestructible and build up in plants, animals, and humans. PFAS health effects include reduced immune function, higher cholesterol, lower birth weight, and kidney and testicular cancer. The city of Rome will install a new water treatment plant in the fall of 2025 to reduce PFAS from the drinking water. Residents are concerned about their PFAS exposure and the effectiveness of water treatment. This study aims to evaluate the levels of 18 PFAS chemicals in the blood of 200 residents, comparing them with national averages and between the two cities. It will also provide useful baseline data to assess the treatment plant’s effectiveness. Results will be shared with participants and the community to inform decision-making. Importantly, this study was developed with the input of residents and organizations and will continue to be guided by local partners throughout the project.

How this study advances exposome science: This study advances exposome science by examining PFAS exposure levels in a community disproportionately affected by industrial contamination while also providing data to assess whether new water treatment technologies can reduce PFAS exposure. We are collaborating with diverse partners and organizations to ensure multiple perspectives are considered in study design, implementation, communications, and next steps. This inclusive approach ensures that the study is representative of the community and its concerns, making the research more relevant and impactful.

Assessing exposure to commonly used disinfectants in metro-Atlanta preschoolers

PI: Amina Salamova

The use of surface disinfectants in schools has increased since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. While these products play an important role in infection control and prevention, their increased use may increase exposure to quaternary ammonium compounds (QACs) among their users and others. QACs are widely used as disinfectants in cleaning, antimicrobial, and other consumer products and exposure to these compounds has been linked to negative reproductive and respiratory health effects. Despite their widespread use, there is limited research on human exposure to QACs, especially in vulnerable populations such as children. This proposal seeks to quantitatively evaluate QAC exposure in children attending Atlanta preschools. In this pilot study we will develop new methods for measuring the levels of QACs in urine samples collected from children attending Atlanta preschools.

How this study advances exposome science: The proposed study is part of our ongoing effort to characterize the human exposome and develop the new analytical methods needed for measuring exposure to understudied contaminants of emerging concern. Results of this work aim to protect a vulnerable population – preschool age children – from harmful chemicals and ensure safer practices in schools for all children.

How Heavy Metals Affect Lung Health in Premature Infants

Study Title: Heavy metal exposure as a risk factor for developing lung damage in premature infants

PI: Xin Hu

Respiratory problems are common in babies born too early due to their underdeveloped lungs. Many are affected by a lung disease called bronchopulmonary dysplasia (BPD) which makes it harder for them to stay healthy and can lead to further lung complications. The exact reason why some babies get BPD is not clear, but the environment may play a part. We want to see if exposure to heavy metals could slow down lung development and cause BPD in premature babies. To determine this we will use small clusters of lung cells made from stem cells (organoids) to mimic how lungs grow in the womb. We will also test if there are more heavy metals in the lungs of infants with BPD compared to those without BPD. We hope to understand whether and how heavy metals affect lung development in infants. The results can help us develop strategies for reducing the incidence of BPD among infants.

How this study advances exposome science: Our study advances exposome science by investigating the molecular processes behind a significant but intricate condition using human tissue. Moreover, by examining the potential health effects of a prevalent environmental exposure that disproportionately impacts communities of color, this project advances health equity.

Characterization of the pregnancy and postpartum serum exposome and metabolome in Black women with and without cardiometabolic risk factors 

Study Title: Exploring relationships between environmental chemical exposures and cardiovascular health among Black pregnant and postpartum women

PI: Erin Ferranti

In the United States, Black women experience higher rates of death and serious heath events during pregnancy and the year following birth than do women of other races and ethnicities. For Black women, cardiovascular disease (e.g., heart attack and stroke) and complications of pregnancy are the leading clinical contributors to poor maternal health outcomes. Growing data link exposure to environmental chemicals to cardiovascular disease risks, but we don’t know whether and how environmental chemical exposures affect women’s cardiovascular health during pregnancy and following birth. High-resolution analysis methods can measure both environmental chemicals and small molecules in the blood, called metabolites, that reflect the body’s response to environmental exposures. We will use high-resolution analysis methods to measure environmental chemicals and metabolites in stored blood samples collected during pregnancy and 10 months following birth from 60 Black women who are part of an Atlanta-based study of pregnancy and postpartum health. We will compare the measured levels of chemicals and metabolites for those who did and did not experience cardiovascular complications of pregnancy and cardiovascular problems postpartum to understand how chemical exposures impact cardiovascular health. Findings from this study are expected to inform strategies to reduce risk for poor cardiovascular health among Black pregnant and postpartum women.

How this study advances exposome science: This study will provide insight into how chemical exposures impact cardiovascular health in Black pregnant and postpartum women. By focusing on this specific population, the research can inform strategies to reduce risks. Given that Black women are disproportionately affected by death and serious health events during and after pregnancy, this study advances exposome research by promoting health equity.

The effects of environmental toxicants on human heart cells

Study Title: Modeling cardiotoxicity induced by environmental toxicants using hiPSC-derived cardiomyocytes

PI: Chunhui Xu, School of Medicine, Pediatrics

As human embryos develop, the heart is highly vulnerable to toxic chemicals that are present in the environment. Maternal exposure to these toxicants can cause a common birth defect called congenital heart defect (CHD). CHD can cause both abnormal heart development in early life and increase the risk for heart disease in adulthood. In this study, we will use human stem cells to create heart muscle cells (cardiomyocytes) and use them to study how heart cells are affected by environmental toxicants. The toxicants of interest in this study are per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), chemicals used in nonstick cookware, stain-resistant carpets and fabrics, and some food packaging. PFAS have been classified as “emerging contaminants,” and previous research has shown that PFAS may be associated with negative effects on heart development. We also plan to identify molecules that can protect heart cells and reduce the toxic effect of PFAS.

How this study advances exposome science: The exposome is the concept that environmental exposures affect human health across the lifetime, and this study’s use of human heart cells generated from stem cells is a novel approach to study the exposome. In addition, this study is an important step towards changes in health outcomes and health equity by identifying ways to protect heart cells and prevent CHD caused by environmental exposures that are experienced by some populations disproportionately.