LITTLE ROCK, AR. (Aug. 20, 2019) – The National Institutes of Health has awarded $3.1 million to a scientist at Arkansas Children’s Research Institute (ACRI) and the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) to study how maternal obesity during pregnancy influences infant brain development.

Dr. Xiawei Ou, a researcher at ACRI and an associate professor of radiology and pediatrics at UAMS College of Medicine, will lead the five-year study, which he hopes will lay the foundation for discovering strategies to promote brain development in children born to obese mothers. Dr. Ou is also the director of the Brain Imaging Lab at Arkansas Children’s Nutrition Center (ACNC).

“Obesity during pregnancy has become a prevalent health concern in the U.S., not only for the pregnant women, but also for their offspring,” Ou said. “The more we understand about precisely how maternal obesity modifies a baby’s brain, the more we can do to change that process.”

Dr. Ou’s research team believes maternal obesity during pregnancy exposes a baby to an inflammatory environment that changes brain structure and development. They’ll be looking specifically at which brain structures and functions are impacted, how long those effects last and the underlying processes that lead to these changes.

The study will recruit pregnant mothers in their first trimester who are either normal-weight or obese and study their newborns’ brains using advanced magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) methods at Arkansas Children’s Hospital (ACH) and ACNC. The ACNC is a national Human Nutrition Research Center established as a partnership between ACH, UAMS and the United States Department of Agriculture-Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS).

MRIs will be repeated at age 1 and 2 years and more neurodevelopmental testing will occur at age 2 to see if the brain changes last into toddlerhood. Researchers will also measure inflammatory markers in the mothers and obtain cord blood samples at birth to see if there are any associations between obesity-associated inflammation during pregnancy and baby’s brain development.

Ou is an inaugural project leader in the ACRI Center for Translational Pediatric Research, which provided infrastructure and guidance to propel the study. The Center for Translational Pediatric Research is supported by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences of the National Institutes of Health under Award Number P20GM121293.

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.