Principles and Practices of Neurodevelopmental Assessment in Children: Lessons Learned from the Centers for Children’s Environmental Health and Disease Prevention Research

Principles and practices of pediatric neurotoxicology are reviewed here with the purpose of guiding the design and execution of the planned National Children’s Study. The developing human central nervous system is the target organ most vulnerable to environmental chemicals. An investigation of the effects of environmental exposures on child development is a complex endeavor that requires consideration of numerous critical factors pertinent to a study’s concept, design, and execution. These include the timing of neurodevelopmental assessment, matters of biologic plausibility, site, child and population factors, data quality assurance and control, the selection of appropriate domains and measures of neurobehavior, and data safety and monitoring. Here we summarize instruments for the assessment of the neonate, infant, and child that are being employed in the Centers for Children’s Environmental Health and Disease Prevention Research, sponsored by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, discuss neural and neurobiologic measures of development, and consider the promises of gene–environment studies. The vulnerability of the human central nervous system to environmental chemicals has been well established, but the contribution these exposures may make to problems such as attention deficit disorder, conduct problems, pervasive developmental disorder, or autism spectrum disorder remain uncertain. Large-scale studies such as the National Children’s Study may provide some important clues. The human neurodevelopmental phenotype will be most clearly represented in models that include environmental chemical exposures, the social milieu, and complex human genetic characteristics that we are just beginning to understand.

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