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Data Released From Adolescent Brain Development Study Led by UC San Diego


  • Kim McDonald

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  • Kim McDonald

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The first datasets from the largest long-term study of brain development and child health in the United States—a project headed by a team of scientists at UC San Diego—were released to researchers around the world today by the National Institutes of Health.

To date, more than 7,500 youth and their families have been recruited for the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development or ABCD study. In addition, approximately 30 terabytes of data—about three times the size of the Library of Congress collection—have been obtained from the first 4,500 participants.

These data are being made available by the NIH, one of the main sources of support for the approximately $150 million study, to researchers worldwide to enable them to conduct research on the many factors that influence brain, cognitive, social and emotional development.

A cross-disciplinary team of social and medical scientists at UC San Diego heads the coordination, data storage and analysis for the nationwide study, while the recruitment of youth and their families is being conducted by scientists in San Diego and at 20 other study sites across the country.

Researchers at UC San Diego and at participating institutions nationwide are seeking answers to questions ranging from the origins of resilience and creativity to identifying biological and behavioral factors that put some youth at increased risk of mental, emotional and academic dysfunction. The effects of substance use on the still developing teen-aged brain will be a particular focus of the study.

UC San Diego was selected to lead the ABCD consortium in a national competition involving dozens of academic institutions. Two central components of the study—the ABCD Coordinating Center and Data Analysis and Informatics Center—and a data collection hub are located on the La Jolla campus. Anders Dale, a professor of neuroscience at UC San Diego, heads the Data Analysis and Informatics Center.

“The ABCD team at UC San Diego includes researchers from the departments of cognitive science, psychology, psychiatry, neurosciences, radiology, biostatistics, bioengineering, the Qualcomm Institute, family medicine and public health, sociology, and political science, and many of the scientists are cross-trained in several disciplines,” said Terry Jernigan, co-director of the ABCD Coordinating Center and a professor of cognitive science, psychiatry and radiology.

“Working together and using new assessment technologies, this diversified national team of scientists will answer important questions about brain and behavior development from childhood through adolescence and into young adulthood,” said Sandra Brown, Vice Chancellor for Research at UC San Diego and a distinguished professor of psychiatry and psychology who is co-director of the ABCD Coordinating Center. “ABCD findings can lead to new understanding of the learning process, and potentially, novel approaches to personalized education. Combining genetic and environmental data will clarify the unfolding of common problems that emerge during adolescence.”

“We are very proud to provide these data to the scientific community, and would like to thank the San Diego area families and schools that have participated and made this research possible,” said Susan Tapert, a professor of psychiatry at UC San Diego and an associate director of the ABCD study who heads the data collection efforts in San Diego. “These data are private—that is, they do not contain personally identifiable information—and yet will permit scientists to address questions about the links between the brain and childhood behaviors, including screen time use, sleep, cognitive performance, physical activity and mental health.”

This interim release provides high-quality baseline data on a large sample of 9 to 10-year-old children, including 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.

The data will be made available through the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) Data Archive, which can be accessed by researchers who obtain a free NIMH Data Archive account. All personally identifiable information is removed from the data to ensure participant confidentiality and anonymity.

“By sharing this interim baseline dataset with researchers now, the ABCD study is enabling scientists to begin analyzing and publishing novel research on the developing adolescent brain,” said Nora D. Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. “As expected, drug use is minimal among this young cohort, which is critical because it will allow us to compare brain images before and after substance use begins within individuals who start using, providing needed insight into how experimentation with drugs, alcohol and nicotine affect developing brains.”

“Sharing ABCD data and other related datasets with the research community, in an infrastructure that allows easy query, data access, and cloud computation, will help us understand many aspects of health and human development,” said Joshua A. Gordon, director of the National Institute of Mental Health. “These datasets provide extraordinary opportunities for computational neuroscientists to address problems with direct public health relevance.”

This comprehensive dataset, which will be disaggregated by sex, racial/ethnic group, and socioeconomic status, will allow researchers to address numerous questions related to adolescent brain development to help inform future prevention and treatment efforts, public health strategies and policy decisions, including, but not limited to:

• How do sports injuries impact developmental outcomes?

• What is the relationship between screen time and brain and social development?

• How does the occasional versus regular use of substances (e.g., alcohol, nicotine, marijuana) affect learning and the developing brain?

• What are some of the factors that contribute to achievement gaps?

• How do sleep, nutrition, and physical activity affect learning, brain development and other health outcomes across racial/ethnic and socioeconomic groups?

• What brain pathways are associated with the onset and progression of mental health disorders and do these pathways differ by sex?

• What is the relationship between substance use and mental illness?

• How do genetic and environmental factors contribute to brain development?

“The collection and release of this baseline data is a crucial step in ongoing efforts to sharpen our understanding of the link between adolescent alcohol use and long-term harmful effects on brain development and function,” said George F. Koob, director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

Recruitment of participants began in September 2016 through outreach to public, charter, and private schools, as well as twin registries in Colorado, Minnesota, Missouri and Virginia. The ABCD Study is designed to include a diverse population that reflects the demographics of the U.S., however these interim data may not fully capture that diversity as enrollment is not yet complete.

So far, 7,637 youth have been enrolled, including 6,399 single participants and 1,238 twins/multiples, reaching a 66 percent recruitment milestone. The study aims to enroll a total of 11,500 children by the end of 2018. The next annual data release will include the full participant cohort.

Participants will be followed for 10 years, during which data are collected on a semi-annual and annual basis through interviews and behavioral testing. Neuroimaging data, including high resolution MRI, are collected every two years to measure changes in brain structure and function.

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, the NIH Office of Research on Women’s Health, and the Division of School Health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), with additional partnerships with the National Institute of Justice, the CDC Division of Violence Prevention, the National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts.

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