Who's Funding Long-Term Research on the Adolescent Brain?

In the immortal words of DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince, “Parents just don’t understand.” Despite having once been kids, adults find it difficult to make sense of teenagers’ actions. But a new landmark longitudinal study funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) will now attempt to create a better understanding of how kids' brains develop and the impact that substance abuse has on the structure and function of the brain.

We don't often write about government grantmaking, but this effort definitely needs to be flagged. 

The Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) Study will track 10,000 children ages 9 to 10 (before they have a chance to initiate drug use) over the course of 10 years, using brain imaging and psychological and behavioral research tools. By the end of the study, researchers hope to learn what effect early exposure to drugs, alcohol, and tobacco has on kids later in their lives. The implications should help improve substance prevention/treatment programs and give insight into creating better public health policies at the national, state, and local levels.

The NIH awarded 13 grants to research institutes nationwide, with the Coordinating Center and main data collection hub located at the University of California at San Diego. The ABCD Study will monitor the kids’ cognitive, intellectual, social, and emotional functions, and investigate factors in young brain growth such as the impact of sleep and sports injuries.

“Our findings can lead to novel approaches to education as well as new types of interventions for common problems emerging during adolescence,” said Sandra Brown, one of the principal investigators at UCSD.

With a $30 billion research budget, the NIH is the world’s largest funding source for medical and scientific research. We wrote about NIH budget constraints in October, noting the agency’s pressure to reduce spending, so this new $300 million commitment to studying adolescent brain development indicates a belief that research in this area will be worth the investment.

According to the NIH, the study will address several questions in its quest to improve policy decisions, including:

  • What is the impact of occasional versus regular use of marijuana, alcohol, tobacco, and other substances, alone or in combination, on the structure and function of the developing brain?
  • How does the use of specific substances impact the risk for using other substances?
  • What are the brain pathways that link adolescent substance use and risk for mental illnesses?
  • What impact does substance use have on physical health, psychological development, information processing, learning and memory, academic achievement, social development, and other behaviors?
  • What factors (such as prenatal exposure, genetics, head trauma, and demographics) influence the development of substance use and its consequences?

No word yet on whether the study will investigate why kids are so embarrassed by their parents.

The study was set in motion by the Collaborative Research on Addiction at NIH (CRAN), a partnership of institutes tackling addiction research. Several other collaborators are involved: 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, and the Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research.

Personally, I’m curious about the ethics of studying kids using drugs. I wonder how much knowledge the participants will have about the study’s focus, and if it will make them more or less likely to accept the first time a classmate offers them a joint.