Current research projects of NGN Research Center

Impact of intrauterine growth restriction on brain development and consequences for later neurodevelopmental outcome: a prospective cohort study (BrainDNIU)

Intrauterine growth restriction (IUGR) is a condition in which a fetus does not reach its biological growth potential. It exposes the fetus and the newborn infant to a high risk of adverse outcomes ranging from perinatal demise to neurodevelopment impairment and noncommunicable diseases in later life, making it a major public health problem. Despite large research efforts to investigate the underlying mechanisms, there is still a lack in knowledge of the individual neurodevelopmental consequences and therapeutic strategies for affected fetuses.

The BrainDNIU study is a longitudinal cohort study that compares the neurodevelopment of infants with IUGR to infants with a normal intrauterine growth. The main research questions of the project relate to the timing and mechanisms of abnormal brain development under IUGR conditions caused by placental insufficiency, and to the factors influencing this dynamic.
Schlafendes Baby bei einer Frau liegend
To answer these questions, participants are investigated from before birth to the age of 6 years by means of a multi methodological approach, including serial structural and functional measurements such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), near-infrared spectroscopy, neurological and psychological developmental assessments. With this project, the NGN Research Center intends to contribute to the research field of IUGR and its long-term neurodevelopmental consequences.

The study is supported by the SNF (Ambizione 2016-2020; Project 2021-2025).

Influence of early life nutrition on neuronal plasticity in newborn

The human brain grows rapidly and differentiates extensively during the late fetal period and the first 3 postnatal years, moving from a relatively undifferentiated and pluripotent organ to a highly specified and organized one. The outcome of this developmental maturation is highly dependent on a sequence of environmental exposures, including diet that deeply influences the ultimate plasticity of the adult brain.

A growing body of research shows that several nutrients shape the brain and affect its function during development with profound and long-lasting effects later in life. In our research, we explore the roles that various human milk nutrients play during the myelination process and the later outcome this process has on behavior and cognition.

People involved

Sialic acid and neurodevelopment: a molecular and cellular approach

Human milk contains a unique composition of bioactive components and is generally considered the gold standard for infant nutrition. Ongoing research in the area of pediatric nutrition seeks to identify components of human milk that may confer physiological benefits to the neonate and may be added to the infant formula matrix.

One such class of dietary components that currently differ in concentration between human milk and infant formula are oligosaccharides (OS).

In our research, we investigate the effect of sialic-acid on neurodevelopment, particularly on myelin and synapse formation as well as neural transmission. We further aim to identify clinically relevant doses at which sialic-acid containing milk might support neurodevelopment.

People involved

Long-term effects of early nutrition on child development (LEARN)

During the first years of life, child development is particularly influenced by nutrition, parenting, and family dynamics. In addition, long-term associations of early child nutrition, and warm and sensitive parenting behavior with the cognitive and socio-emotional development of adolescents have been established. However, the developmental trajectories are rather unknown and the interaction of nutrition and parenting behavior has rarely been investigated. In particular, there is no research examining associations of daily feeding experiences in early age with fluctuations in daily parenting behavior or long-term parenting – and whether such associations differ for mothers and for fathers.

Therefore, in a prospective birth cohort study child development, nutrition, and maternal and paternal parenting behavior will be assessed at different time points (3, 6, 12, 24 months). These longitudinal assessments will be supported by a continuous online investigation of child development and biweekly evening questionnaires.  Thereby, multiple time scales are accounted for (days, months, years) to track different developmental trajectories.

Standardised neurodevelopmental screening for children born preterm (EveryPrem)

The EveryPrem Project is evaluating a new, international tool INTER-NDA to measure neurodevelopment in 2 year-old children, who were born at less than 37 weeks of pregnancy, against the current developmental testing offered to children by the University Hospital Zurich.  The purpose of the study is to assess the effectiveness, medium-term patient benefits and health care costs of this new neurodevelopmental test for all children, at 2 years of age, who were born preterm (at less than 37 weeks of pregnancy) at the University Hospital Zurich between 2019-2021.

Our study addresses an important unmet need for children born between 32 and 37 weeks, who do not currently receive any form of neurodevelopmental follow-up at 2 years of age, but who also are at risk of disturbed neurodevelopment as a consequence of being born preterm.

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