VCU among 21 sites renewed for largest adolescent brain development study in U.S.

Doctor looking at brain scans.
The NIH’s National Institute on Drug Abuse has awarded VCU nearly $11 million in funding to continue its ABCD Study over the next seven years. (Getty Images)

Data collected by researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University and 20 other sites since 2015 has been the basis for numerous scientific articles on children’s brain development, related to topics such as substance use, sleep, obesity and screen time. The researchers’ study will continue collecting and providing even more data to scientists around the world through March 2027.

Last week, the National Institutes of Health renewed the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development Study, the “largest long-term study of brain development and child health ever conducted in the U.S.,” for the next seven years, according to an April 15 release. As a result, the NIH’s National Institute on Drug Abuse has awarded VCU nearly $11 million in funding for the ABCD Study over the next seven years.

Scientists are documenting exposure to drugs (including nicotine, alcohol and marijuana), screen time activities, sleep patterns and engagement in sports and arts, among other variables, that may affect brain development, cognitive skills, mental health and many other outcomes, the NIH stated in its release.

The young participants undergo interviews and behavioral assessments once a year, with physiological measures (e.g., blood pressure, cholesterol) of cardiovascular health. Every two years, participants at VCU undergo neuroimaging of brain structure and function at the Collaborative Advanced Research Imaging center, managed by the C. Kenneth and Dianne Wright Center for Clinical and Translational Research.

VCU is one of four study sites that has recruited twins to yield clarification on hereditary and environmental influences on brain development. The Mid-Atlantic Twin Registry, part of  the VCU Office of the Vice President for Research and Innovation, is the largest twin registry in the United States and recruited most of the VCU participants.

“For more than two decades, the twin registry has provided VCU scientists and colleagues around the world with opportunities to learn how certain traits are influenced by our genes and environment,” said P. Srirama Rao, Ph.D., vice president for research and innovation at VCU. “Longitudinal studies such as this can provide unique insight on the genetic and environmental components of the many developmental changes that occur in the adolescent brain.”

VCU has completed assessments and brain scans of more than 550 participants, including 215 pairs of twins. Researchers are grateful for their participation, said Michael Neale, Ph.D., professor of psychiatry and human and molecular genetics at the VCU Virginia Institute for Psychiatric and Behavioral Genetics and a co-principal investigator of the VCU site’s research on this study.

The ABCD Study focuses on increasing the understanding of environmental, social, genetic and other biological factors that affect brain and cognitive development. Two sets of anonymized data collected from the 21 sites, including VCU, since the study began have been made available through the National Institute of Mental Health Data Archive.

So far, according to the NIH, the data has resulted in 32 research papers that have led to a better understanding of the association between traits or experiences during adolescence, such as obesity, sleep and screen time, and brain physiology or other outcomes, such as cognitive ability and mental illness.

Longitudinal studies such as this can provide unique insight on the genetic and environmental components of the many developmental changes that occur in the adolescent brain.

James Bjork, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the VCU School of Medicine and the VCU Institute for Drug and Alcohol Studies, is a VCU co-principal investigator on the study and serves as a co-chair of the Neurocognition Assessment Work Group for all sites in the ABCD Study. Bjork and his team have convened a community liaison board to share what researchers have learned so far.

Bjork said the data collected from this study could have an effect on policy, informing legislators’ decisions on matters important to the safety of children. The ABCD Study provided the data for a January article in Nature Medicine on lead exposure and its effects on children’s brain development.

Neale and Bjork’s ABCD Study colleagues at a site in California “published this paper showing a pretty devastating interaction between lead exposure and poverty and deprivation, as indicated by the parental questionnaires, on brain volumes and cognitive ability of the children,” Bjork said.

“When you have smoking-gun evidence from hundreds, or thousands, of children showing a relationship, it might argue for policy initiatives for greater remediation of what happened in Flint, Michigan, for example,” Bjork said.

The ABCD Study’s data could also have an effect on the way the nation approaches substance use in teenagers and young adults, Neale said.

“As we look ahead at this study’s impact, I think we’ll be in a much better position to advise people about substance use and its possible harmful effects and do that in a more nuanced way,” said Neale, an affiliate professor in the Department of Psychology in VCU’s College of Humanities and Sciences. “Kids under 21 are using alcohol and other substances — not all of them and not all the time, but we know it’s still happening. And my hope is that we can perhaps offer better health and safety guidelines concerning substance use. We may be also able to find better ways that people can either refrain from use in the first place or be treated for problematic use if it occurs.”

The ABCD Study follows 11,750 children, including 2,100 who are twins or triplets, for at least 10 years starting at ages 9 to 10.

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