Mental HealthScience

The Great Bristol Data Mountain

This month was the 21st anniversary of one of the most ambitious and complex scientific studies ever carried out in the U.K.

Apart from, perhaps, the experiment to see which brand of biscuit took the longest to crumble in tea.

The Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children, also known as the 'Children of the 90's' project (probably because A.L.S.P.A.C. sounds like a Baltic curse), is an ongoing endeavor in which nearly 14,000 children in England have been tracked, studied, and measured since birth, in order to understand the effects of both genes and environment on their eventual health.

The project was started by Professor Jean Golding, an epidemiologist from the University of Bristol. Her full title is Emeritus Professor of Paediatric and Perinatal Epidemiology, or  'E.P.P.P.E.' (which sounds like a man with too many lips being excited about something).

Since 1991, Professor Golding and her team have scrutinised every possible aspect of the D.N.A. and lifestyles of these 13988 children, in an attempt to determine the risk factors for many long-term health problems.

The technical term for this type of experiment is a 'cohort study'. Put simply, it's a type of long-term observation in which a group of people who do not have a particular medical condition/disease (or at least, not yet), are studied using analysis and correlation to work out how at risk they are.

Sounds easy enough, right?

You follow a bunch of people, make note of their lives and genes, and then when they get sick, you try and work out what it was in their lives that might have made them vulnerable. The difference here is that Professor Golding and her team were following THOUSANDS of sepearate people, looking for THOUSANDS of conditions, and TENS of THOUSANDS of risk factors.

Epidemiology is the mathematics-based statistical analysis of medical data. It's incredibly useful, and allows millions of people to live safer lives every year.  It is also the realm of the mad number gods, where spreadsheets abound, and the calculator is king!

To date, more than 300 academic papers been published about information discovered through Children of the 90's. If you're interested, you can find links to some of their press releases and publications here.

Some of their more notable findings include:

  • Children brought up in very hygenic homes are more likely to develop asthma.
  • Children of fathers who suffer from post-natal depression are more likely to develop behavioural problems as they grow older.
  • Mothers who report high levels of anxiety and stress during pregnancy are more likely to have children with anxiety disorders.

Part of the reason I find this so interesting is that I was nearly a child of the 90's myself. I was born in Bristol at the time of this project, and my mum was approached. And quickly retreated from, when she told them that she'd just given birth and therefore had a few other things to worry about right now.

Regardless, the experiment is still ongoing, and still has a huge amount left to tell us. 

Especially given that some of the subjects now have children of their own. They're Children of Children of the 90's of the 00's!


Photo by Pot Noodle of Flickr

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Alex Hoyle is a blogger, student, transvestite, and occasional stand-up comedian from Bristol, England. He can be found on Twitter as @alexdhoyle.

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