Neurodevelopmental disabilities affect 3-8% of the 4 million babies born each year in the U.S. alone, with known etiology for less than 25% of those disabilities. Numerous investigations have sought to determine the role of environmental exposures in the etiology of a variety of human neurodevelopmental disorders (e.g., learning disabilities, attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder, intellectual disabilities) that are manifested in childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood. A comprehensive critical examination and discussion of the various methodologies commonly used in investigations is needed. The Hershey Medical Center Technical Workshop: Optimizing the design and interpretation of epidemiologic studies for assessing neurodevelopmental effects from in utero chemical exposure provided such a forum for examining these methodologies. The objective of the Workshop was to develop scientific consensus on the key principles and considerations for optimizing the design and interpretation of epidemiologic studies of in utero exposure to environmental chemicals and subsequent neurodevelopmental effects. (The Panel recognized that the nervous system develops post-natally and that critical periods of exposure can span several developmental life stages.) Discussions from the Workshop Panel generated 17 summary points representing key tenets of work in this field. These points stressed the importance of:•a well-defined, biologically plausible hypothesis as the foundation of in utero studies for assessing neurodevelopmental outcomes;•understanding of the exposure to the environmental chemical(s) of interest, underlying mechanisms of toxicity, and anticipated outcomes;•the use of a prospective, longitudinal cohort design that, when possible, runs for periods of 2-5 years, and possibly even longer, in an effort to assess functions at key developmental epochs;•measuring potentially confounding variables at regular, fixed time intervals;•including measures of specific cognitive and social-emotional domains along with non-cognitive competence in young children, as well as comprehensive measures of health;•consistency of research design protocols across studies (i.e., tests, covariates, and analysis styles) in an effort to improve interstudy comparisons;•emphasis on design features that minimize introduction of systematic error at all stages of investigation: participant selection, data collection and analysis, and interpretation of results; these would include (but not be limited to) reducing selection bias, using double-blind designs, and avoiding post hoc formulation of hypotheses;•a priori data analysis strategies tied to hypotheses and the overall research design, particularly for methods used to characterize and address confounders in any neurodevelopmental study;•actual quantitative measurements of exposure, even if indirect, rather than methods based on subject recall;•careful examination of standard test batteries to ensure that the battery is tailored to the age group as well as what is known about the specific neurotoxic effects on the developing nervous system;•establishment of a system for neurodevelopmental surveillance for tracking the outcomes from in utero exposure across early developmental time periods to determine whether central nervous system injuries may be lying silent until developmentally challenged;•ongoing exploration of computerized measures that are culturally and linguistically sensitive, and span the age range from birth into the adolescent years;•routine incorporation of narrative in manuscripts concerning the possibility of spurious (i.e., false positive and false negative) test results in all research reportage (this can be facilitated by detailed, transparent reporting of design, covariates, and analyses so that others can attempt to replicate the study);•forthright, disciplined, and intellectually honest treatment of the extent to which results of any study are conclusive - that is, how generalizable the results of the study are in terms of the implications for the individual study participants, the community studied, and human health overall;•confinement of reporting to the actual research questions, how they were tested, and what the study found, and avoiding, or at least keeping to a minimum, any opinions or speculation concerning public health implications;•education of clinicians and policymakers to critically read scientific reports, and to interpret study findings and conclusions appropriately; and•recognition by investigators of their ethical duty to report negative as well as positive findings, and the importance of neither minimizing nor exaggerating these findings.
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