Published: Sept. 12, 2016

CU Boulder researchers will play a key role in a landmark National Institutes of Health (NIH) study of brain development and child health in the United States. The long-term study begins recruitment today.

The Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) study will follow the biological and behavioral development of more than 10,000 children beginning at ages 9-10 through adolescence into early adulthood. Recruitment will be done over a two-year period through partnerships with public and private schools near research sites across the country as well as through twin registries.

CU Boulder is one of 19 sites across the nation selected to host the study. Research will be led by the university’s Institute of Cognitive Science (ICS) which runs the campus’s neuroimaging center and the Institute for Behavioral Genetics (IBG).

“Adolescence is a remarkable period of brain development, a time when the brain is particularly malleable and receptive to the environment,” said Marie Banich, director of the CU Boulder neuroimaging center and one of the principal investigators of the ABCD study. "The size and scope of this study will provide foundational research to understand how brain development enables the growth in mental and emotional functions that characterize the transition from childhood to adolescence to adulthood.”

CU Boulder will also be one of just four study sites to focus on twin pairs, specifically looking at developmental behaviors that can be attributed to environmental influences compared to those that are inherited genetically. 

“The selection to participate in a national study of this caliber speaks to the strength of both the twin study resources we have developed and the reputation IBG has in this area,” said John Hewitt, director of IBG. IBG has maintained the statewide Colorado Twin Registry since 1968.

The study, which is supported by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, may also shed new light on the effects of adolescent experiences on brain development, including experimentation with drugs and alcohol. For example, the study may provide information on whether there are certain sensitive periods during adolescence when the brain is particularly influenced or affected by such experiences.

“Overall, we hope to gain a better understanding of the brain’s emotional and cognitive development at this crucial point in life,” said Banich, who is also a professor in CU Boulder’s Institute of Cognitive Science. “The results will help provide scientific evidence that can be used to help design educational programs and guide public policy so that the youth of Colorado, as well as other teens across the country, can lead the happiest and healthiest lives possible.”

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. 

an illustration of neurons in the brain

An illustration of neurons in the brain. Credit: Institute of Cognitive Science / University of Colorado Boulder