Wright State’s Fels Longitudinal Study featured in special anniversary issue of national American Journal of Physical Anthropology

Researchers at the Wright State University Boonshoft School of Medicine are leading the charge in understanding what makes people different. Their research is providing physicians with a greater understanding of human growth and development. But it can also provide valuable insights useful to another field of scientific discovery: physical anthropology.

Richard J. Sherwood, Ph.D., director of the Division of Morphological Sciences and Biostatistics and professor of community health and pediatrics, and Dana Duren, Ph.D., associate professor of community health and orthopaedic surgery, sports medicine and rehabilitation, say that the growth and development data gathered over generations by the Fels Longitudinal Study can provide valuable insights for scientists in the physical anthropology community.

Their research and that of others was recently published in a January 2013 special issue of the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, the official journal of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists. The special issue, guest edited by Sherwood and Duren, commemorated the 80th anniversaries of the Fels Longitudinal Study, the longest continuous study of human growth and development in the world, and the founding of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (AAPA).

“You gain tremendous perspective by looking at the history of the Fels Longitudinal Study,” Sherwood said. “Although current Fels Longitudinal Study research is largely directed at biomedical questions, virtually all findings are relevant to physical anthropology, providing insights into basic biological processes and life history parameters.”

In 2011 a symposium, “Growth of a Species, an Association, a Science: 80 Years of Growth and Development Research,” was held in Minneapolis, Minn., to celebrate the longevity and interrelated nature of the Fels Longitudinal Study and the AAPA. Several of the participants had current or historical connections to the Fels Longitudinal Study, which began in 1929 in Yellow Springs, Ohio.

Today, the Fels Longitudinal Study focuses on physical growth, skeletal maturation, craniofacial growth, genetics, longitudinal biostatistical modeling, body composition, risk factors for cardiovascular disease and aging of the musculoskeletal system. In 1977, the Fels Research Institute and Fels Longitudinal Study became part of the Wright State University’s Boonshoft School of Medicine, residing first in the Department of Pediatrics and later within the Department of Community Health in the Lifespan Health Research Center. Participants in the study range from infants to the elderly.

The January 2013 special issue of the journal notes that in the 1930s research focused on examining the effects of nutrition and environment, especially the Great Depression, on children’s health. Concern in those days was focused on leanness and malnutrition, while today the discussion has moved to childhood obesity.

The AJPA issue also examines lifetime changes in basic skeletal structure and the changing genetic landscape that influences these traits, which requires generations of data on families. “Working with the Fels Longitudinal Study, we have been able to explore the changing influence of genetics and environment on skeletal traits not only during childhood but also through the entire lifespan,” Duren said. “We hope that it will become a resource for future inquiries in physical anthropology.”

Other articles in the journal resulting from the symposium deal with growth and development in different populations. There also are methodological papers on new approaches critical to growth studies, such as analysis of longitudinal data.

“There are still new things we can learn from the study of growth and development,” Duren said. “We are building on the research that others, like Dr. Stanley Garn, former chair of the Department of Physical Growth of the Fels Institute and a prolific writer in physical anthropology, did to help pediatricians and other physicians assess how children are developing in today’s world.

“And, after 80 years, researchers at Wright State University Boonshoft School of Medicine can now track how growth and development influences adult biology.”

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