Recruitment begins for landmark study of adolescent brain development

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The University of Florida and 18 partnering institutions will launch the largest long-term study of brain development and child health in the United States.

Recruitment of more than 10,000 children — including about 400 in the Gainesville region — is now underway for the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development, or ABCD, study. The landmark study, funded by the National Institutes of Health, will follow the biological and behavioral development of children beginning at ages 9 and 10 through adolescence and into early adulthood. Recruitment will be carried out over a two-year period through partnerships with public and private schools near the research sites.

Researchers are targeting specific elementary schools within specific geographic regions to ensure a nationally representative sample, said Sara Jo Nixon, Ph.D., co-principal investigator at the UF Health site with Linda B. Cottler, Ph.D., M.P.H., founding chair of UF’s department of epidemiology. The highly competitive $3.76 million grant to UF recognizes the institution’s commitment and expertise and will allow its Evelyn F. and William L. McKnight Brain Institute of the University of Florida to be part of an elite group engaged in the project, Nixon said.

“This is a landmark study because it’s the only one of its kind to do a prospective study of children as young as 9 over a critical developmental period — from 9 to 19 — and with sufficient numbers for us to really examine the biological, psychological and social factors that influence developmental trajectories over this time period,” Nixon said.

Scientists will use advanced brain imaging, interviews and behavioral testing to determine how childhood experiences interact with each other and with a child’s changing biology to affect brain development and — ultimately — social, behavioral, academic, health and other outcomes.

Researchers will examine how varied adolescent experiences (i.e., participation in extracurricular activities; playing video games; sleep habits; head injuries from sports; experimentation with alcohol, tobacco, marijuana or other substances) affect development. This is particularly relevant in today’s rapidly changing world, which is now dominated by social media and other forms of communication in which adolescents readily engage.

Parents interested in learning more about the study should go to the ABCD website or talk with UF’s site coordinator, Sarah Reaves, for more information.

“We know the brain is still developing well into the mid-20s, making it vulnerable to a host of influences,” said NIH Director Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D. “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.”

Understanding these relationships may help reveal the biological and environmental building blocks that best contribute to successful and resilient young adults. This enhanced knowledge also may lead to ways to predict potential developmental problems so that they can be prevented or reversed. Families who volunteer will be part of groundbreaking research that promises to inform future educational strategies, child development innovations, research priorities, more effective public health interventions, and science-based policy decisions.

The ABCD study is supported by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, the National Cancer Institute, 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, the NIH Office of  Behavioral and Social Sciences Research and the Division of Adolescent and School Health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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