VCU receives $5 million grant to study adolescent brain development

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The National Institutes of Health awarded a $5 million grant to Virginia Commonwealth University to take part in a landmark study on substance use and adolescent brain development. NIH’s Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development study is the largest longitudinal neuroimaging study of human brain development ever launched.

The five-year grant will fund research that aims to map the neuropsychological trajectories of the developing brain. The study holds the potential to expand on current understandings of both normal and atypical brain development across human adolescence. 

“This study will afford an unprecedented look at healthy variation in human brain development with regard to academic success, resiliency and other lifestyle factors,” said co-principal investigator James M. Bjork, Ph.D., associate professor, Institute for Drug and Alcohol Studies and Department of Psychiatry, VCU School of Medicine.

Each child will be repeatedly assessed with both structural and functional MRI brain imaging, along with tests to evaluate mental and physical health. VCU was selected as one of 20 research institutions around the country slated to follow a total of about 10,000 children beginning at ages 9 and 10 through puberty and adolescence. The expectation is that the grant will be renewed at the end of five years so that researchers can continue to study the participants through adolescence and into early adulthood. “The study will also determine the relationship between substance use and brain measures,” Bjork said.

VCU is one of four consortium sites that will be recruiting pairs of twins to yield additional clarification of hereditary and environmental influences on brain development. The Mid-Atlantic Twin Registry, which is housed within the VCU Office of Research, played a key role in VCU’s selection for participation in the study. The largest twin registry in the United States, the MATR is a database of twins and their families who are willing to consider taking part in twin-based, health-related research. It has been providing researchers with access to twins for more than 35 years.

“Studying twins provides an opportunity to separate genetic and environmental sources of individual differences in development,” said co-principal investigator Michael C. Neale, Ph.D., professor of psychiatry and behavioral genetics, Virginia Institute for Psychiatric and Behavioral Genetics at VCU. “It also permits testing of causal hypotheses — how people’s experiences result in changes in brain structure and function or vice versa.”

The study will feature biannual MRI scans at the VCU Collaborative Advanced Research Imaging facility, which will screen for changes in brain structure and function. It will also entail psychiatric interviewing of the children and their parents as well as questionnaires on academic achievements, cognition measurements and other life history factors.

“The purpose of the study is to relate brain development and neurobehavioral outcomes to various environmental variables, which could include drug abuse,” Bjork said. “It will offer an unprecedented, granular look at how the human brain develops and what the exposure of drugs and alcohol to the teen brain does.”

Feature image at top: Michael C. Neale, Ph.D., (left) and James M. Bjork, Ph.D.