ETSU researchers pave the way to help drug-exposed newborns

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JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – Researchers at East Tennessee State University are launching a project that could help drug-exposed babies.

Drs. Alyson Chroust, an ETSU assistant psychology professor, and Kara Boynewicz, a pediatric physical therapist, are looking into how opioid exposure affects newborns in a new study.

The study, funded by a $10,000 grant through the university’s Research and Development Committee, will examine how prenatal opioid use affects the visual processing and motor development skills of newborns.

“We don’t know a lot, there’s a lot of unanswered questions and that’s part of what we’re trying to set out and do – just learn more information about what their cognitive behavior looks like, what their motor development looks like at a really young age,” Chroust said.

One test will measure the motor and cognitive skills of opioid-exposed and unexposed newborns by monitoring how the infants process spatial information.

The test shows the babies pictures of faces, and Chroust uses a camera to track their eye movement. She said this could tell researchers what the babies remember about faces and gives a peek into their cognitive development.

Boynewicz will conduct motor development assessments on the babies in tandem, using motor performance tests to see how withdrawal symptoms could be affecting muscle reactions.

Together, the results could help researchers begin piecing together a picture of the development of opioid-exposed newborns.

And down the line, that will help doctors and researchers develop intervention strategies.

“We’re going to learn more about what they’re struggling with and what their difficulties are early on when it comes to motor development and behavior,” Chroust said.

The project melds research with the clinical side of things, which Chroust said is important to building research that will help craft intervention strategies down the road.

“This is a great way to try to bring what we do in clinical practice into the research field to actually look at the outcomes in a more scientific way of showing, matching it up and then seeing the relations between the cognitive piece and the physical development piece,” Boynewicz said.

The researchers added that participating families will also get the opportunity to learn more about their baby’s development.

“A lot of the work we’re going to is going to involve the parents at bedside too, so interacting with mom and showing mom how she can interact with baby or (how) dad can interact with baby,” Chroust said.

The research will be the first step toward developing intervention strategies for babies born with neonatal-abstinence syndrome, a population Chroust said she feels is “understudied” given the scope of the opioid epidemic.

With parental consent, the pair will be enrolling infants born at Niswonger Children’s Hospital for the study. Chroust said she aims to test 25 drug-exposed babies and 25 unexposed babies over the course of the study.

“If we find differences it will allow us to design interventions to help prevent any sort of long-term deficits or hopefully reduce any long-term deficits that may emerge,” she said.

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