LITTLE ROCK, AR. (Nov. 6, 2019) – Arkansas Children’s Research Institute (ACRI) is participating in a wide-ranging initiative to address addiction after the National Institutes of Health (NIH) awarded two of its researchers $516,375 to study how prenatal exposure to opioids and other drugs affects children’s brain development.

Since 2000, the number of pregnant women with opioid use disorders has increased four-fold and the incidence of neonatal abstinence syndrome has increased five-fold, according to NIH.

The 18-month Phase 1 planning grant awarded to ACRI will help lay the foundation for a major component of NIH’s Helping to End Addiction Long-term (HEAL) Initiative, the HEALthy Brain and Child Development (HBCD) Study.

Working closely with NIH and 27 other sites across the nation, the research at ACRI will help prepare for the Phase 2 national HBCD study, which aims to enroll and follow thousands of children from before birth through age 9-10 to examine how brain development and children’s cognitive function and behavior are influenced by prenatal opioid and other drug exposure, childhood trauma and adversity and other environmental factors.

In Arkansas, the work will be led by ACRI investigators Xiawei Ou, PhD, an associate professor of radiology and pediatrics at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) College of Medicine, and Ashley Acheson, PhD, an associate professor of psychiatry at UAMS.

“The knowledge we’ll gain from these projects will inform the next steps for what can be done to help these children,” Acheson said. “We see this as having the potential to lead to interventions to help improve their outcomes.”

“To solve a problem like negative changes in children’s brain development and adverse outcomes associated with opioid addiction during pregnancy, you have to first really understand the problem,” Ou said. “We believe over the next 18 months we will develop a solid strategy to look into this problem, and hopefully during phase 2 of this study we’ll know much more about what exactly happens and why it happens, which will lead to strategies that help us provide better care.”

For this Phase 1 project, ACRI is part of a consortium that includes Duke University, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The research teams of this particular consortium will develop approaches and strategies, conduct pilot studies using fetal and postnatal imaging, evaluate instruments that can help assess children’s behavior and neurodevelopment and analyze available data to guide a Phase II study design.

The ACRI award, worth a combined $516,375, is among 375 grant awards across 41 states made by NIH in fiscal year 2019 to apply scientific solutions to reverse the national opioid crisis. NIH is funding $945 million in an unprecedented commitment to addressing the crisis.

This research is supported by the National Institute on Drug Abuse of the National Institutes of Health under Award Number R34DA050261.

The ACRI research team includes:

  • Jessica Coker, MD, an assistant professor of psychiatry and obstetrics and gynecology at the UAMS College of Medicine;
  • Leanne Whiteside-Mansell, EdD, a professor of family and preventive medicine at the UAMS College of Medicine;
  • Lorraine McKelvey, PhD, an associate professor of family and preventive medicine and pediatrics at the UAMS College of Medicine;
  • Whit Hall, MD, a professor of pediatrics at the UAMS College of Medicine;
  • Charles Glasier, MD, a professor of radiology and pediatrics at the UAMS College of Medicine.

About Arkansas Children’s

Arkansas Children's, Inc. is the only healthcare system in the state solely dedicated to caring for Arkansas' 710,000 children, giving the organization a unique ability to shape the landscape of pediatric care in Arkansas and transform the health of children throughout the region. The private, non-profit organization includes two pediatric hospitals, a pediatric research institute and USDA nutrition center, a philanthropic foundation, a nursery alliance, statewide clinics, and many education and outreach programs.

Arkansas Children’s Hospital (ACH) is a 336-bed, Magnet-recognized facility in Little Rock operating the state’s only Level I pediatric trauma center; the state's only burn center; the state's only Level IV neonatal intensive care unit; the state's only pediatric intensive care unit; the state’s only pediatric surgery program with Level 1 verification from the American College of Surgeons; and the state's only nationally recognized pediatric transport program. Additionally, ACH is nationally ranked by U.S. News & World Report in five pediatric subspecialties (2019-2020): Cardiology & Heart Surgery, Nephrology, Neurology & Neurosurgery, Orthopedics and Pulmonology. Arkansas Children’s Northwest (ACNW), the first and only pediatric hospital in the Northwest Arkansas region, opened in Springdale in early 2018. ACNW operates a 24-bed inpatient unit; a surgical unit with five operating rooms; outpatient clinics offering over 20 subspecialties; diagnostic services; imaging capabilities; occupational therapy services; and Northwest Arkansas' only pediatric emergency department, equipped with 30 exam rooms. Generous philanthropic and volunteer engagement has sustained Arkansas Children's since it began as an orphanage in 1912, and today ensures the system can fundamentally transform the health of children in Arkansas and beyond. To learn more, visit

About UAMS

UAMS is the state’s only health sciences university, with colleges of Medicine, Nursing, Pharmacy, Health Professions and Public Health; a graduate school; hospital; a main campus in Little Rock; a Northwest Arkansas regional campus in Fayetteville; a statewide network of regional campuses; and seven institutes: the Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute, Jackson T. Stephens Spine & Neurosciences Institute, Harvey & Bernice Jones Eye Institute, Psychiatric Research Institute, Donald W. Reynolds Institute on Aging, Translational Research Institute and Institute for Digital Health & Innovation. UAMS includes UAMS Health, a statewide health system that encompasses all of UAMS’ clinical enterprise including its hospital, regional clinics and clinics it operates or staffs in cooperation with other providers. UAMS is the only adult Level 1 trauma center in the state. U.S. News & World Report named UAMS Medical Center the state’s Best Hospital; ranked its ear, nose and throat program among the top 50 nationwide; and named six areas as high performing — cancer, colon cancer surgery, heart failure, hip replacement, knee replacement and lung cancer surgery. UAMS has 2,727 students, 870 medical residents and five dental residents. It is the state’s largest public employer with more than 10,000 employees, including 1,200 physicians who provide care to patients at UAMS, its regional campuses, Arkansas Children’s Hospital, the VA Medical Center and Baptist Health. Visit or Find us on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube or Instagram.