Grown-Up Researchers Look Closely at Young Minds in Major New Study
May 9, 2018
Adolescence has long been known as a time of vulnerability for the start of mental disorders and substance use, yet not enough is known about normal brain development and its variations. To fill that gap, a collaborative federal program is starting to take a comprehensive look at young Americans.
The Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) Study hopes to recruit at least 10,000 young people aged 9 to 10 to chart their development over their adolescent years using myriad physical, psychological, and neuroimaging tests. The study will follow them up to age 21 and catalog the influence of genetic, environmental, and behavioral factors. Participants will get comprehensive assessments at baseline with biennial follow-ups and additional phone or web contacts in between.
The study’s results will help develop national standards for brain development and the factors influencing that process, said Terry Jernigan, Ph.D., a professor of cognitive science, psychiatry, and radiology, and director of the Center for Human Development at the University of California, San Diego, in a symposium at APA’s annual meeting in New York.
The moment for such a study has arrived for two reasons, said Jernigan. Researchers and policymakers need the information that the study will provide at a time when substance use patterns are changing and there is a growing appreciation of the complexities of the adolescent brain’s development trajectories. In addition, safe, noninvasive neuroimaging technology has matured, affordable genotyping has arrived, and novel assessment techniques (like mobile devices or wearables) are available.
As of May 6, 9,167 adolescents had been recruited through schools, an approach intended to increase acceptance and retention. Large numbers are needed to make the study more comprehensive and permit the meaningful study of subgroups, said Hugh Garavan, Ph.D., a professor of psychiatry and psychology at the University of Vermont in Burlington, one of the study’s 39 principal investigators.
“We can embrace variation and purposefully sample populations often excluded [from such studies],” said Garavan. “A large cohort allows us to build in replication, detect small effects, and disentangle confounders like race and socioeconomic status.”
Some of the study’s early results provide insights into the world of young people, said investigator Mary Heitzig, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Michigan.
“In general, most 9- and 10-year-olds can be considered substance-naïve, but substance use is around them, and they are aware of it,” Heitzig reported. “Because drug exposure is minimal in this group, we will be able to characterize youth before the start of significant substance use.”
The ABCD Study was initiated by the National Institute of Health (NIH) Collaboration on Addiction, led by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, and the National Cancer Institute, but it now includes other NIH institutes, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institute of Justice, and the National Endowment for the Arts. Around the country, research will be carried out at 21 sites, coordinated by the University of California, San Diego.
Use of the data generated by the study will not be limited to the principal investigators. An Open Science model will allow other qualified researchers at NIH-approved institutions to make use of the results and potentially increase their impact, said Gayatri Dowling, Ph.D., director of the ABCD Project at NIDA.