NIDA to Undertake Research on Adolescents, Drug Use and Development

From the blog of Dr. Lora Volkow, National Institute of Drug Abuse, posted  September 13, 2016.

Adolescence is a time of many physical, behavioral, and social transitions, not to mention changes in the brain. As part of their normal maturation, people in their second decade of life are beginning to become independent in the world, which means seeking new experiences and taking risks to determine what they are capable of. The state of the adolescent brain reflects this: The structure and circuits governing reward and emotion are more fully developed and tend to win out in the tug-of-war with the still-maturing prefrontal circuits governing judgment and impulse control. The behaviors that arise as a result of this imbalance can be wide-ranging, both positive and negative, including potentially harmful behaviors like substance use. Such behaviors can in turn affect how the brain develops, often in ways that remain poorly understood.

The phrase “more longitudinal research needed” is the bottom-line message in many studies of substance use and other behaviors during this period of life and their long-term impacts—such as whether using drugs increases risk of mental illness (or vice versa), whether smoking marijuana causes lower IQ (or vice versa), or whether vaping leads to increased or decreased cigarette use. This is why NIDA is excited to announce that recruitment is now underway for the largest longitudinal study ever conducted on adolescent behavior, brain development, and related health outcomes.

The Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) study, which has been in the planning phase for just under a year, is now recruiting more than 10,000 9- and 10-year-olds at 19 research sites across the United States, and will follow these young people for a decade, through their early adulthood. Recruitment will be conducted over a two-year period through partnerships with public and private schools near the research sites, as well as through twin registries.

The study will collect an enormous amount of behavioral, genetic, and health data on the participants, including MRI scans every other year, so that brain development can be tracked and correlated with a vast range of factors including participation in extracurricular activities like music and athletics; video games and screen time; sleep habits; head injuries from sports; and experimentation with or regular use of alcohol, tobacco, marijuana or other substances, as well as socioeconomic and other environmental variables.

Besides enabling researchers to draw stronger conclusions about the developmental impacts of adolescent behaviors and environments, it will also create, for the first time, a baseline standard of normative brain development. Today, when parents take their child to the doctor, their physical development can be plotted and compared to established norms for measures like height and weight, but nothing of this kind has ever existed for brain maturation. The ABCD study data will clarify the normal trajectory of brain development and its developmental benchmarks. At the end of this study, pediatricians will potentially have new brain-imaging biomarkers to determine if a patient’s development is off course, so that they can possibly intervene.

To me, this is the only way to win the “war on drugs.”

For more information about ABCD, please visit its website at

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