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Children of the 90s celebrates 21 years

Press release issued: 18 April 2012

Hundreds of people will gather in Bristol today [Wednesday 18 April] for a conference to discuss the remarkable scientific discoveries the Children of the 90s study at the University of Bristol has made since it started in 1991.

Thanks to the dedication of the participants, who have answered over 400 million questions and given 21 years of their lives, not to mention blood, hair, nail clippings and baby teeth, the study has made an enormous contribution to society’s understanding of human health and well-being and has influenced important healthcare debates and policies in the UK and overseas.

The study’s many findings include:

  • eating oily fish in pregnancy is associated with higher-than-average IQ and visual development in children;
  • anxiety in pregnancy, taking frequent doses of paracetamol in the later stages of pregnancy, exposure to peanut oil, household aerosols and air fresheners, and growing up in an overly clean environment can all contribute to asthma and allergies in children;
  • 15 minutes of exercise a day may lead to an important reduction in risk of childhood obesity;
  • children whose parents encourage them to talk, read and play early on have better communications skills when they start school.

When Professor Jean Golding convinced more than 14,000 pregnant women in Bristol and the surrounding area to take part in the study all those years ago, little did she imagine that today the study would be a world-leader in genetic research, analysing the genome (genetic blueprint) of thousands of participants, something that seemed like science fiction only a decade ago when the first human genome sequence was completed. Thanks to advances in genetic research, the study contributed to the discovery of a gene called FTO, which found that people who have two ‘risk’ copies of the gene are several pounds heavier than those who don’t. 

As Children of the 90s celebrates its 21st birthday this year, it is expanding into a family study, looking at the health of the mothers and fathers in much more detail. Before the end of the year, their grandchildren will be invited to take part and in the next few years the brothers and sisters of the original ‘children’ will be included too.

Speakers at the conference, which include some of the 650 international academics who regularly work with Children of the 90s data, will cover topics including childhood heart disease, bone development, reproductive health from pregnancy onwards, predicting whether study participants will become heavy drinkers, the causes of childhood asthma and allergies, and the impact of our genes on just about everything.

Professor Golding, who was appointed OBE in the Queen’s New Year’s Honours list, said: "Looking back at all those early struggles to keep the study going, it is amazing how much has been achieved. I am so grateful to all the scientists who advised us, and those who were involved, to the staff who contributed so much and of course the participants who continue to take part. Most of all to the former Finance Director of the University who believed that we would bring credit to the University in spite of early financial difficulties."

Professor George Davey Smith, who succeeded Professor Golding as scientific director in 2006, added: "Having secured £6 million in funding to continue our research into the future, we are very excited that we are now able to hold clinics at which the fathers undergo examinations and will soon be starting to recruit the next generation too.

"We would love to hear from anyone who was born in Bristol or the surrounding area between April 1991 and December 1992 who may not have been in touch with us for a long time or ever – they are still part of the study and really important to us. Each person is unique and no one else can provide us with their data. By gathering all that information together we can help paint a picture of the population’s health and improve understanding of how to optimise and maintain health throughout life.

"They can get in touch by calling us on (0117) 331 0010, texting “21” to 07789 753722 or by emailing their name and date of birth to info@childrenofthe90s.ac.uk."

The conference will conclude with a lecture on ‘Nariokotome Boy’ by Professor Alice Roberts. ‘Nariokotome Boy’ was discovered in 1984, is an estimated one-and-a-half-million-years old, and is the most complete skeleton of any of our ancestors. In what promises to be a fascinating talk, she will explore how old he was when he died, whether he had a congenital disease which affected his spine and ribs, and just how 'human' he was.