In 2013, a group of public health agencies in the U.S. formed a partnership to launch a research initiative called Collaborative Research on Addiction and the National Institutes of Health (CRAN). The agencies directly involved in initiating CRAN were the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAA), the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), and the National Cancer Institute (NCI). Since then, the National Institute on Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), the National Institute on Mental Health (NIMH), the National Institute on Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), and the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities (NIMHD) joined the partnership.
That’s an impressive array of federal agencies, and an overwhelming group of acronyms as well. Thankfully, the project they teamed up to participate in has an easy-to-remember acronym. You’ve already seen it in the title of this article: ABCD.
ABCD stands for The Adolescent Brain and Cognitive Development Study. The mission of the CRAN group was to “…learn as much as possible about individuals before they start using substances.” The ABCD study operationalized this effort by creating a research project that follows and tracks the development of a group of 11,750 children – 2,100 of whom are twins or triplets – for ten years, beginning at age 9 or 10 and finishing when they’re 19 or 20.
The study began in 2015, which means it’s now at the halfway point. Researchers recently got good news. The federal government allocated an additional 290 million dollars to fund the study for the next seven years. This funding will allow the ABCD study to complete data collection and give researchers time to complete a rigorous statistical analysis of their findings.
ABCD: The Next Phase
The funding comes at a critical time. The new phase of research will focus on the effect of alcohol and substance use on the adolescent brain. According to NIDA Director Nora Volkow:
“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.”
We anticipate data from this research effort will help clinicians who work in alcohol abuse treatment for adolescents, substance abuse treatment for adolescents, and mental health treatment for adolescents. The coming data should help them structure treatment plans for adolescents in residential treatment for behavioral health issues and/or drug rehab programs. The application of cutting-edge neuroimaging and diagnostic techniques will allow the scientists to document and examine the effect of the following substances, habits, or activities on the adolescent brain:
- Drugs of abuse, including:
- Screen time
- Sleep patterns
- Participation in arts programs
- Participation in sports programs
Youth and adolescents in the study – all 11,750 – participate in behavioral assessments and interviews once or twice a year. They also receive physiological assessments every two years, including tests and procedures to examine physical factors such as:
- Blood pressure
- Cholesterol levels
- Heart health
- Hormone function
- Brain development
- Cognitive development
The use of the latest neuroimaging data is crucial to this research effort. Neuroimaging is now at a stage scientists twenty years ago thought was possible, but at the time was unreachable. Scientists thirty years ago thought our current stage might be conceivable. Scientists fifty years ago barely dreamed of what we can do now. Our current stage is made possible by technologies such as fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) and PET scans (positron emission tomography), which enable scientists to observe brain function in real time.
The Imaging Difference
Scientists working on the ABCD project have already developed the first-ever map of the functional organization of the average brain of a ten-year-old child. This is a giant step forward in both pediatric psychiatry and adolescent neuropsychology.
But we need to back up and talk about the imaging itself for another moment. Historic impediments to understanding the human brain are at once obvious and almost impossible to overcome. We can’t see inside the brain. We can’t design experiments for people in the same way we can, for instance, for laboratory animals. And we can’t truly examine a human brain until the person the brain belongs to has passed away.
MRI and other scanning technology got us part of the way there in the 1980s and 1990s. MRI enabled us to create accurate models of the physiological structures of the brains of living people. But it didn’t allow us to observe the function of those structures. That’s what fMRI and PET technology do. They allow us to see not only the physical structures of the brain, but also how those physical structures function in real time.
That’s a huge development. It allows researchers to see which neurons (brain cells) and neural networks (functional groups of neurons) activate under certain circumstances and in response to specific stimuli. The implications for research are wide-ranging. The principal investigators involved in the ABCD study are using these technologies as we speak to explore the adolescent brain from every angle – literal and conceptual – they can think of.
The ABCs of Addiction
To date, ABCD researchers have published studies that examine the relationship of brain structure and function to sleep, body mass index, family conflict, cognitive ability, and mental illness. The next stage of the study – now fully funded through 2027 – will yield results that we hope will inform our work in behavioral disorders, mental health disorders, and addiction.
In the words of Dr. Volkow:
“The next phase of the ABCD study will help us understand the effects of substance use, as well as environmental, social, genetic, and other biological factors on the developing adolescent brain.”
We look forward to the new body of knowledge this research will generate. It will give us an expanded understanding of the underlying physiological mechanisms related to typical and atypical adolescent development. Ideally, it will also allow us to synchronize our methods with the latest data and evidence. The ABCD study is the cutting edge. We’re ready to do our part in using this new knowledge to help our teenagers in any way we can.