UCSD Plans Longitudinal Study of Over 10,000 Adolescents

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Last week, UCSD announced that it will lead a study to discover more about the developing adolescent brain. Led by UCSD professors, the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development program will be a longitudinal study that will observe over 10,000 children from the ages of nine to 10 over the next 10 years.

The study aims to discover the biological and behavioral factors that put some youth at an increased risk of mental dysfunction. Additionally, this study will focus on the effects of drugs and substance abuse on the developing adolescent brain.

Terry Jernigan, the director of the UCSD Center for Human Development and one of the study’s principal investigators, explained to the UCSD Guardian why there was a need for such a large sample size and how the ABCD study differed from previous studies.

“Although much important work has been done in recent years to help us understand the adolescent mind and brain, some limitations are that the studies are often too limited in size or scope to assess the roles of the many factors that are probably important for understanding something as complex as the fast-developing adolescent mind,” Jernigan said. “This study promises to be the most definitive study to date of a period in the development of the mind and brain that is, for many people, the time when they develop a trajectory that leads to growing independence, productive creativity and personal resilience.”

Additionally, Jernigan described how some serious neuropsychiatric conditions may develop during this period of adolescence.

“Unfortunately, it is also a period of great risk,” Jernigan said. “The earliest manifestations of many serious neuropsychiatric conditions occur during this period of development — mood and anxiety disorders, dependence on damaging substances like drugs and alcohol or behaviors that hijack otherwise promising minds — and some youth experience academic and economic disengagement.”

Jernigan further described how the study was designed and how it could lead to the discovery of factors that contribute to intellectual development and prosocial behaviour, as well as adverse outcomes.

“Our team of researchers has done as much as possible, within the limits we were given, to design a study that will be useful to the entire developmental-cognitive neuroscience community — to study these and many other aspects of late childhood and adolescence,” said Jernigan.  “Furthermore, because we will study a cohort drawn from all parts of our society, we can look much more closely at what factors predict intellectual engagement, a sense of well-being and purpose and prosocial behavior — as well as what factors may contribute to adverse outcomes.”

Susan Tapert, another one of the study’s principal investigators, told the Guardian what the team plans on learning from this study and what could be done with the findings.

“We plan not only on learning how behaviors in adolescence affect brain development, cognition and outcomes into young adulthood — including risk behaviors like substance use — but also how protective health behaviors like getting good sleep, having positive social interactions and engagement with school might improve brain development,” Tapert said.  “Our hope is that, in 10 years, we will have some very good advice for teens, parents, schools and even policymakers on how to make the most of the important life stage of adolescence.”

Eleanor Roosevelt College junior and neuroscience major Lori Mandjikian described the impact that this study will have for the field of neuroscience.

“With 10,000 individual children enrolled in the study, researchers and psychiatrists will have a great number of case studies to draw from when diagnosing, treating and potentially even preventing mental dysfunctions in the future,” Mandjikian said. “This is why ABCD is extremely necessary and worthwhile.”

Chancellor Pradeep Khosla also remarked on the effect that this study will have for UCSD in general.

“This landmark study reflects UC San Diego’s strength in multidisciplinary approaches to questions of national importance,” Khosla told the UCSD News Center. “These national leaders will coordinate a broad network of scientists around the country, all of whom are focused on new ways to understand and support successful development of our youth.”

The Collaborative Research on Addiction at the National Institute of Health, a group of institutes that focus on addiction research, will sponsor the ABCD study. The cost, distributed among the institutes, is around $150 million for the first five years. According to UCSD News Center, UCSD expects to receive $32 million in awards during this time period.