Developmental milestones – The ABCD study comes of age

Psychologists play pivotal role in landmark study.

The Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) study is an ambitious project to image the brains of more than 10,000 nine- and ten-year-old children and follow their physical, cognitive and emotional development for ten years through early adulthood.   Brain magnetic resonance imaging [PDF, 3.1MB] (MRI), both structural and functional, will be conducted at baseline and biannually throughout the course of the study.  The study recently completed enrollment and that milestone was celebrated this fall at the study’s third annual meeting in La Jolla, CA. The study is being led by psychologists Sandra Brown and Terry Jernigan from the ABCD Coordinating Center at the University of California San Diego and across 21 additional sites nationwide.  Twenty-seven of the 39 Principal Investigators are psychologists.

The study is designed to answer a range of questions about the developmental trajectory of substance use, normative mental health, and mental illness in children and adolescents. The study represents the most visible product of the functional integration of substance use research at the National Institutes of Health which is organized under the rubric of Collaborative Research on Addictions at NIH (CRAN). The $300 million study which receives the largest share of its funding from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, followed by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and the National Cancer Institute, now includes support from several other federal partners.  It was conceived as a natural follow-on to a smaller longitudinal study of the effects of alcohol on the developing brain (the National Consortium on Alcohol and Neurodevelopment in Adolescence or NCANDA).

Recruitment included over-sampling to ensure adequate representation of ethnic/racial minorities from the general population (n=10,148) and 1727 individuals who were identical twins/triplets for a total of 11,875 participants. While recruitment was the initial challenge, retention of an adolescent population will be daunting. Brown and Jernigan are targeting minimums of 85% retention at each study site and 90% overall (current retention is 99.52%). The study promotes an open science model encouraging widespread use of the archived anonymized data. The first wave of data released in February included basic participant demographics, assessments of physical and mental health, substance use, culture and environment, neurocognition, tabulated structural and functional neuroimaging data, and minimally processed brain images, as well as biological data such as pubertal hormone analyses for the first 4500 participants.

The annual meeting provided an opportunity for the investigators to discuss early findings and design strategies emerging from the first two years of the study including the examination of psychotic-like experiences in young children, development of gender identity, screen media activity effects on physical and mental health, and how socioeconomic status and air pollution may affect cognitive development.

APA and Congressional Support

APA was an early supporter of the study and submitted report language [PDF, 3MB] that was accepted verbatim by the House Appropriations Subcommittee that guided NIH appropriations for Fiscal Year 2016:

“Adolescent Behavioral and Cognitive Development.--The committee applauds the Collaborative Research on Addictions at NIH (CRAN) initiative and the launch of the Adolescent Behavioral and Cognitive Development (ABCD) study. Unique in its scope and duration, the ABCD will recruit 10,000 youth before they begin using alcohol, marijuana, nicotine and other drugs, and follow them over 10 years into early adulthood to assess how substance use affects the trajectory of the developing brain.  The Committee commends the study design which will use advanced brain imaging as well as psychological and behavioral research tools to evaluate brain structure and function and track substance use, academic achievement, IQ, cognitive skills, and mental health over time.”  

Once underway, APA became one of the early Partner Organizations helping to disseminate information about the study and educate members of Congress about the value of prospective longitudinal research designs.  Such studies are vulnerable to competing funding demands as was the case with the National Children’s Study, terminated by the NIH Director in 2014. The ABCD study is off to a great start but will require vigilance from the advocacy community to ensure it’s allowed to continue to completion. Geoff Mumford of APA’s Science Government Relations Office serves on the ABCD National Liaison Board [PDF, 446K].