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Grant Awards Mark the Launch of Landmark Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) Study

September 25, 2015

Reposting a blog from the Collaborative Research on Addiction (CRAN) site by Nora Volkow (Director, NIDA), George Koob (Director, NIAAA), Alan Guttmacher (Director, NICHD), Bob Croyle (Director, Division of Cancer Control and Population Sciences, NCI), Thomas Insel (Director, NIMH), and William Riley (Director, OBSSR).

Photo of a group of teenagers©Shutterstock/William Perugini

Today the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) Study officially gets underway, as the National Institutes of Health award 13 five-year grants to U.S. research institutions that will spearhead the landmark project over the first half of its roughly 10-year duration. Researchers at these institutions will follow approximately 10,000 children, recruited initially at age 9 or 10 (i.e., before they are likely to have started using drugs), conducting behavioral interviews and gathering neuroimaging, genetic, and other health data at periodic intervals until they are young adults. The data gathered will enable researchers to assess the effects of different patterns of alcohol, tobacco, and drug use (including no use) on the developing brain, on mental health, and on outcomes like academic achievement, as well as a wide range of other factors affecting young Americans’ life and health.

The teen years are the period of highest risk for substance use and for the development of other behavioral disorders, and they are also a period when the brain is changing dramatically. A study of this scope will yield an unprecedented amount of detailed information about how the brain develops and how its development is affected by a multitude of factors alone and in combination with each other. It will allow us to look not only at exposure to substances including nicotine, alcohol, and marijuana and other drugs but also at mental illnesses, the effects of brain traumas from injuries, and influences of other environmental factors like family and peer influences, and socioeconomic status. The inclusion of genetic data will give us crucial information about genes’ influence on adolescent development and on vulnerability to mental illness and the effects of substance use.

The study will do much to fill the large existing gaps in our knowledge about the brain-developmental effects of many substances. Current high levels of underage binge drinking and increased intensity of binge drinking in adolescents are causes of significant concern, for example, and this study will clarify how various levels of alcohol exposure, as well as alcohol use in combination with other substances, affect the developing brain. Given the changing laws around marijuana in some states that will likely make this drug more accessible to youth, a similarly nuanced picture of marijuana’s effects is also crucial to acquire. Although cigarette use among adolescents has declined, the surge in use of e-cigarettes (which deliver nicotine and other chemicals to the user) and other tobacco products like little cigars, makes it very important to learn more about the impact of nicotine and tobacco use on the adolescent brain, including how their use affects the brain’s response to other drugs. The ABCD study will also provide crucial insight into the developmental effects of new synthetic cannabinoids (“herbal incense”) and synthetic cathinones (or bath salts), about which we have practically no knowledge at this point.

The large number of teens that the ABCD study hopes to recruit and retain for its decade-long duration will not just yield vast amounts of data on the effects of substance use but will also greatly clarify our picture of normal healthy brain development. It is important to remember that most young people never develop drug or alcohol problems, and only about half use an illicit drug before leaving high school. High-risk groups will be oversampled in order to ensure that enough data on substance users are collected. But the ABCD study data on typically developing, healthy adolescents with minimal or no substance use exposure will also be extremely valuable for comparison, both in this and future studies. These data will be a great contribution to science, as currently no normal imaging standards for adolescents exist to enable researchers to make such comparisons.

The 13 grants issued today will fund a Coordinating Center, a Data Analysis and Informatics Center, and 11 research project sites. It is an exciting moment for addiction research. A decade from now, we will understand the effects of substance use on development with a precision that, today, we can barely imagine.

This page was last updated September 2015

Comments

Substance Abuse : Art/Spirituality Can Help

I enjoy that this article highlights teens specifically. In my blog, I have also chosen to focus on the younger population and their susceptibility to addiction, although I discuss college age students more than teens. This article is very correct to point out that people's formative years are when they are most at-risk for substance abuse. What preventative measures can we take to support children, teens, and young adults that are already genetically predisposed to the disease that is addiction? I propose implementing support groups across campuses that can create a space for young people to channel their energy in a positive way together. A great unifying tool for these students would be to integrate art into them, so that they can bond with one another and relieve the stress that often comes having an alcoholic immediate family member.

Thank you

Thank you for writing this piece. The ABCD study was no doubt an eye opener for me. Had no idea it even existed.

Ever since my cousin suffered brain damage from excessive binge drinking in 2005, I've dedicated my entire life and company to take 50% of all my profits and donate it to NCADD. By the looks of it though, it may be better to focus my efforts on the ABCD study instead. I want change for our future and I hope we'll have a solution soon.

ABCD study welcome. Congratulations for our country

It's unfortunate that recreational drug abuse in mainstream America is not now some historical curiosity that had simply faded away with the era of aging hippies. But considering instead how drug abuse in America forges along stronger than ever, the ABCD study is a valuable necessity.

Ten years is a long time, at which point America may be so far along the path toward marijuana acceptance, there might not be a possibility of ever turning back. Why we are so willing to allow drugged minds set the course for America as we embark on a path toward the unknown, vulnerable to the negative consequences that will surely haunt us, is a great mystery.

If there's one big question I want answered by the ABCD project, it is what, if any role the cannabinoids from marijuana or hashish abuse have with violent tendencies. I want to know if the vast amounts of hashish used by the Middle Eastern terrorists is at the core of their madness. I want to know it the violent Mexican drug cartels, financed and sponsored by our illegal drug culture, are barbaric because of the illegality of drugs, or if marijuana abuse since childhood has completely depleted whatever natural empathy for life they once had. I want to know what role marijuana has on the minds of so many of our domestic mall and school shooters, and bombers, etc. I want to know if so many cops being shot with drug arrests has more to do with the drug deranged mindset of the perpetrators rather than the illegality of the drugs.

We might erringly be assuming that all these murders associated with the drug trade are because of the illegality of drugs, whereas in reality it's possible instead that the murdering is because the minds of the murderers have been adversely affected by marijuana abuse. I want to know if marijuana abuse was at the core of the Boston Marathon Bombings, or the Olympic bombings.

Or, recall the iconic image of the fireman holding the dying baby at the Oklahoma City bombing on April 19,1995 that killed 168 people. The perpetrators were known to have used massive amounts of marijuana in prior years. Ultimately I want to know: Will the ABCD study answer for me whether or not that baby was killed by marijuana?

Clarification of my comments above

Without some insight, I am afraid the casual reader might think my questions above for the ABCD project verge on the 'lunatic' side. So let me explain a bit.

First off, there seems to be an unbelievable correlation with cannabis abuse and heinous crimes all about the world. If such a statistical correlation truly exists, we need to find out why this is happening through scientific research such as the ABCD project to see whether or not a medical correlation also exists. That is, are mind-altering drugs actually altering minds?

Here are topics I wonder: MRI research suggests that marijuana affects the very part of the brain that also harbors our basic emotions- things such as hunger, empathy and inhibition. Other suggestions from MRI research indicate as gray matter of that part of the brain is diminished, the brain tries to compensate with whole new arrays of neural structures. We need more research to verify this!

Then, how about the the possibility that as the cannabinoids from hashish or marijuana deplete empathy and inhibitions from that one region of the brain, not all users of cannabis properly re-structure their brains to compensate? Maybe there is a genetic component that makes a minority of abusers more vulnerable, or maybe a minority has a hereditary proclivity for violence that are normally subdued from natural inhibitions. We might be tricking ourselves into thinking marijuana is relatively harmless because most abusers are impervious to harmful affects. But what if a minority does have such vulnerability?

Maybe there are environmental factors such as poor nutrition or unhealthy lifestyles that render some abusers more vulnerable? However, just like the influence of alcohol on the brain, that can remove inhibitions for some individuals temporarily, perhaps marijuana is having the same affect, EXCEPT in a permanent manner? So many of the homicidal psychopaths who are using cannabis seem so listless, without a concern for human life- for others, or for their own.

Or maybe as the brain re-structures, some abusers are inadvertently programming their brains in such a manner that attunes their minds to whatever input is being received. The obvious is marijuana itself is being favorably accepted in the brain's neural structure (the addictive process). But maybe the brain is also incorporating a lot more input through association. Thus, perhaps the brains of radical Islamists are 'learning' in conjunction with hashish to proceed violently with their warped perspectives of the world. Cop shooters are the same way.

Nobody knows yet, but shouldn't science based research into this area be of paramount importance? We all need to wonder about such things as our nation boldly embarks into the brave new world of marijuana acceptance. I am hoping the ABCD project does shed some light!

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