NIH releases first data from unprecedented study of adolescent brain development

MILWAUKEE _ The National Institutes of Health today released the first data from the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) study, the largest long-term study of brain development and child health in the United States. The study’s aim: to identify optimal biological and environmental building blocks for raising successful and resilient young adults.

The baseline data, documenting many factors that influence brain development of children, comes from 4,500 of the 11,500 children who will eventually participate, including 240 from the Milwaukee area. The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee is one of 21 sites across the nation recruiting and collecting data from area schoolchildren in the study during the next 10 years.

“This landmark study will help us uncover factors that impact child and adolescent brain, cognitive, emotional and physical development,” says Krista Lisdahl, associate professor of psychology who is heading up the UWM site.

“I am especially interested in how health factors such as screen time, caffeine usage, drug exposure, sleep and physical activity influence neurocognitive development in youth. We look forward to sharing results with Wisconsin families, scientists, and educators over the years to come.”

Participants will be followed for the next decade, during which data are collected on a semi-annual and annual basis through interviews and behavioral testing. Neuro-imaging data, including high-resolution MRI, are collected every two years to measure changes in brain structure and function.

It takes about 30 terabytes to store the information on the first 4,500 children. That’s roughly three times the size of the Library of Congress collection.

The high-quality baseline data includes participant demographics, assessments of physical and mental health, substance use, culture and environment, neurocognition, tabulated structural and functional brain-imaging data, and minimally processed brain images, as well as biological data such as pubertal hormone analyses.

“By sharing this interim baseline dataset with researchers now, the ABCD study is enabling scientists to begin analyzing and publishing novel research on the developing adolescent brain,” said Nora D. Volkow, M.D., director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). “As expected, drug use is minimal among this young cohort, which is critical because it will allow us to compare brain images before and after substance use begins within individuals who start using, providing needed insight into how experimentation with drugs, alcohol and nicotine affect developing brains.”

This comprehensive dataset, which will be disaggregated by sex, racial/ethnic group and socioeconomic status, will offer vital insight into how family dynamics, environment, lifestyle and health behaviors affect children and help inform future public health strategies. The data could be applied to questions such as:

  • How do sports injuries affect developmental outcomes?
  • What is the relationship between screen time, the brain and social development?
  • How does the occasional versus regular use of substances like alcohol, nicotine and marijuana affect learning and the developing brain?
  • What are some of the factors that contribute to achievement gaps?
  • How do sleep, nutrition, and physical activity affect learning and health outcomes across racial/ethnic and socioeconomic groups?

Recruitment of participants began in September 2016 through outreach to public, charter and private schools, as well as twin registries in Colorado, Minnesota, Missouri and Virginia. The next annual data release will include the full participant cohort.

For more information, visit the website at For more information about the adolescent brain, go to:

The ABCD study is supported by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, the National Cancer Institute, the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the National Institute of Mental Health, the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities, the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, the NIH Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research, the NIH Office of Research on Women’s Health, and the Division of School Health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with additional partnerships with the National Institute of Justice, the CDC Division of Violence Prevention, the National Science Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts.

For more information, contact: Krista Lisdahl, 414-229-7159,

About UWM
Recognized as one of the nation’s 115 top research universities, UW-Milwaukee provides a world-class education to 25,000 students from 91 countries on a budget of $653 million. Its 14 schools and colleges include Wisconsin’s only schools of architecture, freshwater sciences and public health, and it is a leading educator of nurses and teachers. UW-Milwaukee partners with leading companies to conduct joint research, offer student internships and serve as an economic engine for southeastern Wisconsin. The Princeton Review named UW-Milwaukee a 2018 “Best Midwestern” university based on overall academic excellence and student reviews, and the Sierra Club has recognized it as Wisconsin’s leading sustainable university.