Landmark study of adolescent brain development renews for seven years

The National Institutes of Health has awarded nearly $290 million of new funding to research institutions around the country, including the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, to continue the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) Study. The funding extends the project, the largest long-term study of brain development and child health ever conducted in the United States, for seven more years.

Launched in 2015, ABCD is following 11,750 children – 386 of them from southeastern Wisconsin – for at least 10 years, starting at ages 9 to 10. The aim is to generate detailed data about how young brains mature.

For the last three years, the UWM site’s researchers have been documenting how variables such as exposures to drugs (including nicotine, alcohol, and marijuana), screen time activities, sleep patterns, physical activity and family relationships interplay to predict emotional, cognitive and brain development throughout the adolescent years.

The young participants undergo interviews and behavioral assessments once or twice a year, with physiological measures of cardiovascular health and neuroimaging of brain structure and function every two years, said Krista Lisdahl, UWM associate professor of psychology who leads the UWM scientific team.

“We’ve already begun collecting information on multiple factors that influence early substance use, like alcohol use and vaping, and onset and severity of mental health problems and trauma outcomes among tweens,” said Lisdahl. “We also want to know how disruptions from the COVID-19 pandemic might impact families, given new stresses such as unemployment, illness, and separation from friends and family.”

Lisdahl and students in the Brain Imaging and Neuropsychology (BraIN) Laboratory at UWM also have played a leading role in several ABCD sub-studies. One examines how levels of endocannabinoids impact emotional and brain development. Endocannabinoids are natural chemicals in the brain that marijuana interacts with. These brain chemicals also regulate many processes in the body, such as immune response, stress response, memory, and appetite and metabolism.

Another sub-study Lisdahl is involved with examines the impact of local drug (alcohol, marijuana, nicotine and opiate) policies and early teenage substance use.

In addition to Lisdahl, the UWM scientific team includes Christine Larson, professor of psychology; Paul Florsheim, professor of public health; and more than 25 students in the BraIN Laboratory. Consultants include Drs. Andrew Nencka, Cecilia Hillard and Lisa Conant at the Medical College of Wisconsin, and Dr. Staci Gruber at Harvard Medical School.

The nationwide ABCD study has already produced two sets of high-quality baseline data for the broader research community through the National Institute of Mental Health Data Archive to enable both ABCD investigators and non-ABCD researchers to pursue their own research questions. The data — so far more than 140 terabytes’ worth — include basic participant demographics, assessments of physical and mental health, substance use, culture and environment, and neurocognition, tabulated structural and functional neuroimaging data, and minimally processed brain images.

The comprehensive dataset, which is broken down by sex, racial/ethnic group, and socioeconomic status, allows researchers to address numerous questions that may ultimately inform health decisions and policies related to education, nutrition, physical activity, sleep, and prevention of substance use and mental illness.

“Since the participants are now in their vulnerable middle school years or are beginning high school, this is a critical time to learn more about what enhances or disrupts a young person’s life trajectory,” said Dr. Nora D. Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Information about the ABCD Study and the study sites can be found online.

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