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NIH to track brains of 10,000 kids over a decade

by Thomas Dworetzky , Contributing Reporter
If you've ever wondered what goes on in the teenage brain, take heart – you're going to get help answering your questions from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

The NIH has begun recruiting for its Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) study, a 10-year longitudinal look at brain development and child health in the U.S.

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“We know the brain is still developing well into the mid-20s, making it vulnerable to a host of influences,” said Dr. Francis S. Collins, NIH Director, in a statement. "With several NIH institutes and centers working together on this important study, we will be able to learn how a variety of biological events and environmental exposures affect brain development, giving us greater insight into what helps adolescents traverse that potentially tumultuous time to become healthy and productive adults.”

The study is the largest to date looking at teen brains, and will follow over 10,000 kids starting when they're age 9 or 10 years and tracking them to early adulthood.

The recruitment period will run about two years and be done with the help of both public and private schools.

One site participating in the study is the University of Michigan Medical School. The university has long used advanced MR techniques to study the brain coupled with in-depth interviews in order to piece together the mind-brain connection, according to a university statement.

The ABCD study will take these efforts to a “new level,” according to co-lead U-M researcher Mary Heitzeg, Ph.D.

“This is a tremendous opportunity for us to work with families to seek answers to questions that our society has pondered for years, including how our early experiences and factors such as sleep, sports, drugs and alcohol affect brain development and vice versa,” she noted.

At test sites across the country this combination of brain imaging, interviews and behavioral testing will let researchers track the relationship between childhood life and brain biology.

This large scale study could potentially build on already tantalizing research in the area. The ABCD study noted in its statement that “understanding these relationships may help reveal the biological and environmental building blocks that best contribute to successful and resilient young adults,” adding that “this enhanced knowledge also may lead to ways to predict potential developmental problems so that they can be prevented or reversed.”

Research that buttresses such possibilities is already being done on a smaller scale. For example, U-M research published earlier this year in JAMA Psychiatry suggested “that it might be possible to create a growth chart of brain networks that could identify early signs of attention difficulties and, potentially, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.”

Such growth charts could let families and doctors spot developmental trouble and address it more quickly. "In the future, we want to provide clinicians with the same sort of guidance about brain development that we can about things like height and weight," said team leader and U-M psychiatrist Dr. Chandra Sripada.

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