Study to Offer Insight on the Adolescent Brain

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How a child's or teen's routine activities—such as sports, sleep, and screen time—effect his or her developing brain remains unknown. But a new long-term study launched in September at 19 research sites around the country and funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) aims to fill in these knowledge gaps. The Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) study will collect significant amounts of data on normal, healthy teen behavior and its impact on neurological, social, emotional, and cognitive development. It also will examine some of the unhealthy and risky behaviors often associated with the "experimental" teenage years.

The study will follow 10,000 children, from age 9 years through early adulthood, to gather information during the pivotal teen years, including—for the first time in a study of this size—brain images. Just as pediatricians monitor height and weight, the ABCD study will chart brain growth and development into adulthood. The NIH's National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) are leading the study, with additional support from NICHD and other NIH institutes and partners.

This 10-year study will track multiple variables and outcomes, including the effects of substance use (e.g., nicotine, alcohol, tobacco) on the adolescent brain. It also will provide valuable information on teens who don't experiment with drugs and alcohol, who exercise regularly, who play music and sports, and who spend time on social media. Researchers intend for this unique data and image bank to become a standard measure for researchers to use as a comparison—to improve our understanding of cognition, emotion, personality, and behavior.

The study holds the promise of helping parents, educators, and health care providers improve children's health and well-being by answering many shared questions:

  • How does screen time, the nearly constant interaction with tablets, TV, and smartphones, affect social and brain development?
  • How common are sports injuries, particularly concussions, and do they influence academic achievement?
  • Do certain extracurricular activities, such as music, sports, or debate, lead to better health and educational outcomes?

Every year, participating children and their parents will visit the nearest study site, where they will complete interviews and questionnaires. The children also will play games and complete computer-based tasks aimed at assessing their cognitive function. They will undergo safe, noninvasive brain imaging, both while resting and while engaged in mental tasks, and will provide biological samples (such as saliva) for genetic and other testing. All of the participants' private information will be kept confidential, as required by law. All study assessments and procedures are provided to families free of charge, and families will be compensated for their time participating in the study.

In addition to NICHD, NIDA, and NIAAA, other NIH institutes and centers supporting the study include the National Cancer Institute, the National Institute of Mental Health, the National Institute of Minority Health and Health Disparities, the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, and the NIH Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research.

To learn more about participating in the study, visit the ABCD study website.

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