NATURE, NURTURE, AND THE RESEARCH AGENDA AT NICHD1

Alan Guttmacher
Eunice Kenney Shriver National Institute of
Child Health and Human Development

One of the most influential conclusions of From Neurons to Neighborhoods is that it is not nature or nurture but nature and nurture that matter in early childhood development, said Alan Guttmacher, Director of NICHD. “The acceptance of that today compared to a decade ago is much more pervasive, and that is an important thing.”

The acceptance of this thesis has created new opportunities to investigate the complex interactions between nature and nurture that affect early childhood. As an example, Guttmacher cited the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, which combines longitudinal data on adolescents’ social, economic, psychological, and physical well-being with data on family, neighborhood, community, school, friendships, peer groups, and romantic relationships to study how such factors affect health and achievement. He also cited the National Children’s Study, which will allow researchers to examine multiple effects of environmental influences and biological factors on the health and development of approximately 100,000 children across the United States from before birth to age 21.

New Research Tools

Recent advances have given researchers new tools to examine early childhood development. In particular, Guttmacher focused on recent advances in genetics, although from an unexpected perspective. “I come here as a certified genomicist to tell you that the real thing we have to focus on is the environment. That’s because we have made great strides in the last decade in having tools to look at genetic [influences]. We have not made similar kind of strides in understanding environmental influences.”

The sequencing of the human genome has made it possible to identify genes involved in a wide variety of human diseases. For example, new tools and data have made possible investigations known as genome-wide association studies, which began to find genetic variants associated with specific diseases in 2005. Since then, genome-wide association studies have uncovered hundreds of genetic regions involved in human diseases. Guttmacher acknowledged that relatively few of the genetic regions identified so far

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1 This section of the chapter is based on the presentation by Alan Guttmacher titled “The Federal Policy Perspective” at From Neurons to Neighborhoods Anniversary: Ten Years Later.



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