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How do childhood experiences affect health in later life?

A pioneering new longitudinal study could revolutionise our understanding of how early childhood experiences impact health later in life. Saz Ahmed, Wellcome Research Manager, explains how the project will tackle health inequality and advance the field of mental health science.

The photo shows Irene Reppion, a Research Midwife at Liverpool Women's Hospital, seated with a C-GULL participant discussing the study consent forms and information sheet.

University of Liverpool

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Irene Reppion, a Research Midwife at Liverpool Women's Hospital, seated with a C-GULL participant discussing the study consent forms and information sheet.

Saz Ahmed

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How do childhood experiences affect health in later life?
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Longitudinal birth cohort studies follow a group of children from birth or earlier to adulthood and are a powerful tool to understand the factors that influence health over time.  

The Children Growing Up in Liverpool (C-GULL) study, launched in May 2023 and supported by Wellcome’s Discovery Research and Mental Health programmes, is the first new biomedical birth cohort study in the UK in 17 years. 

With over 10,000 children and their families taking part, it's one of the largest studies of its kind in the country. By investigating how genetic, environmental and societal factors can impact health from early life to adulthood, this project seeks to answer important questions and unlock new insights into human health. 

Making health inequalities visible  

People living in deprivation face a higher risk of health issues, including mental health problems, obesity and diabetes. Despite this, these groups are often underrepresented in research studies.  

Without accurate health data that represents people from all backgrounds, especially those at highest risk, we cannot intervene early or appropriately, which could lead to longer-term and more serious issues. That’s what the C-GULL study aims to change.

The project will focus on the Liverpool City Region, where nearly half of the population, including two-thirds of children, live in the most deprived neighbourhoods in the UK. Access to healthcare and support services in this area is also particularly challenging.

By working closely with local communities, the team aims to better understand the impact of these challenges on the health of children and their families over time. They will involve families in every stage of the research process to ensure it is appropriate and responsive to local needs.

This provides a unique opportunity to assess the relationship between health and deprivation on a large scale, creating the opportunity for better and more responsive interventions in Liverpool and similar regions throughout the UK and beyond.

Understanding the relationship between gut health and mental health  

Research has suggested a possible connection between gut health and mental health in adults, but little is known about gut health in childhood and its impact on mental health in later life. 

The C-GULL study aims to address this gap through a sub-project called 'Microbes, Milk, Mental Health and Me' (4M), supported by an additional £6.9 million in funding from Wellcome. 

By investigating the gut microbiome – the collection of microorganisms living in the digestive tract – from prenatal development onwards, the research team will gain insight into how it affects child brain development, behaviour, emotions and potential mental health problems. 

The team will collect biosamples from 7000 mothers and their babies up to two years old, providing the largest and most detailed dataset on microbiome development in the UK to date. 

This unique archive will be a valuable asset to the field of mental health internationally and could help unlock groundbreaking insights into the relationship between gut health, breastmilk and mental wellbeing, and inform new and improved interventions for children and their families.

What's next for C-GULL? 

The C-GULL study is currently underway, and the research team is recruiting families and children to take part.  

This study is an example of how science could lead to meaningful and actionable discoveries to improve the lives of communities, especially those facing significant challenges in accessing healthcare and support services. By partnering with key stakeholders and involving families and communities in the research process, the project highlights the power of collaboration in achieving positive outcomes. 

The project also offers Wellcome the opportunity to support the national data infrastructure, and we’re looking forward to working with the team and partners to see what important insights it uncovers.