A well-known adage states, “It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness.” That’s what The Urban Child Institute and the University of Tennessee Health Science Center (UTHSC) hope to do with the CANDLE study, by following 1,500 babies from birth to age 3. Once the three-year study is completed, researchers will be able to shed light on the complex factors that shape brain development during the early years.
“The study looks at what factors in a mom’s environment impacts a baby’s brain and cognitive development,” says CANDLE study manager Patricia Simpson. The name of the study, CANDLE, is an acronym that speaks to the science at its core: Conditions Affecting Neurocognitive Development and Learning in Early Childhood. “During pregnancy and up to three years of life, 80 percent of brain growth takes place,” said Frances A. Tylavsky, CANDLE’s prinicipal investigator and professor of preventive medicine at UTHSC. “What happens in these years has a major influence on what the children can learn and the development of their skills.” Thus, the study will examine everything that affects a child’s development and learning, from nutrition and sleep patterns to toxins like lead in paint and soil.
So far, 1,380 women and babies are participating in the study. By June, researchers hope 120 more will have joined the program. The data, collected over a three-year period, will generate a wealth of information. Normally, child advocates rely on national data for decision-making, but the CANDLE study will reflect local demographics only.
“The study is also unique because it collects environmental conditions like neighborhoods, records what the children’s diets are, and looks at how different biological factors affect development,” says Tylavsky. How will that information help advocates? “Memphis can learn what contributes to infant mortality. It may show we need intervention strategies like teaching a mother how to hold and nurture a child, or that we need to expand the Early Head Start program.”
The Urban Child Institute, a hub of research on early childhood development, is particularly interested in determining what factors place children at risk for later learning and classroom success, says Hank Herrod, a fellow at The Urban Child Institute. “These babies will be followed for three years and we’ll have a huge amount of information and because of the extended period of time and the broad cross-section of women, the results will be extremely rich for policy makers, political leaders, and nonprofit organizations.”
Several national organizations have expressed interest in the outcomes of the study, and The Urban Child Institute hopes to attract national partners to help fund additional studies.
Meanwhile, Tylavsky and her colleagues are asking volunteers to take part in the study. Women should be less than seven months pregnant, have a low-risk pregnancy, and live in Shelby County. Mothers receive $500 in gift cards over the course of the study.
During pregnancy, information is gathered from the mother’s blood and tissue. After birth, the babies become the study’s focus. Information is collected once a quarter (four times) during the baby’s first year, and once a year after. “What we want to learn are the basic things to improve brain health,” says Tylavsky, “and improve the lives of kids in our community.”
If you would like to participate, call the University of Tennessee Health Science Center Department of Preventive Medicine at 448-8400. Information is also available at candlestudy.org.