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Following the Adolescent Brain

December 29, 2016

Most parents will tell you that the teenage brain is a mystery. But for Monica Luciana, professor and chair of the Department of Psychology, those mysteries have inspired a fascinating new study that promises to shed light on issues ranging from substance abuse to the effects of other activities and health behaviors on the developing adolescent brain.

Funded by the NIH, the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) Consortium is a nationwide study conducted across 21 research sites, involving 41 principal investigators studying 11,000 children starting at ages 9 to 10. Using cutting edge neuroimaging technology, the ABCD study will be “the largest longitudinal study of its type of adolescent development,” says Professor  Luciana. More information about the study can be found on the official ABCD Study website.

Minnesota’s Unique Role

The ABCD Consortium study was launched in September 2016. Beginning in September 2017, the data will be available to the public and will continue to be updated through the next 10 years.

Together with Regents Professor William Iacono, Luciana co-directs the University of Minnesota site of the ABCD Project. They will focus their work on collecting behavioral and brain imaging data from children recruited locally.  Luciana also co-leads the neurocognitive work group for the entire Consortium. 

The University of Minnesota’s MRI technology will be central to the initiative. “Minnesota was selected as a performance site of the study in part because our brain imaging resources here are state-of-the-art and considered world class,” says Luciana.

Special to the U of M and three other sites will be data collected on twins. “The University of Minnesota’s contribution of a twin sample adds a highly unique element to the ABCD Consortium,” said Luciana, “The examination of identical versus non-identical twin pairs will permit genetic and environmental sources of influence on adolescent development to be differentiated.” 

Gathering data on both twin and non-twin children from across the nation, Luciana and other researchers will use brain scans, conduct behavioral tests, and survey parents about their children's’ behaviors to shed light on aspects of adolescent development.

A Focus on Substance Abuse

A key issue they will study is substance abuse. Recent surveys on national populations suggests that by eighth grade about 30 to 50 percent of children report using some kind of substance within the last year. 

“Substance use is a very serious problem among adolescents,” Luciana emphasized. “Binge drinking is very common among teenagers and very young adults and is thought to be particularly problematic in terms of effects on behavior and on the brain, such as distress, diminished functions, and perhaps later substance use disorder.” 

The ABCD Study intends to follow the same children from before they have used any substance (which is why the study starts when the subjects are 9 to 10 years old) into periods of active substance use, and then into adulthood when use tends to decline. 

“The longitudinal aspect of the study will allow us to better infer cause and effect associations between risk-taking behaviors and the emergence of psychological disorders and will let us better understand when we might intervene to prevent negative outcomes” said Luciana.

This story was written by an undergraduate student account executive in CLAgency. Meet the team.