ABCD: Milwaukee Takes Part in Landmark Study on Adolescent Brain Development

Feb 13, 2017

Until recently, scientists didn't understand just how critical adolescence is for human development. And over the next decade, we will likely learn more than ever before about how young minds develop.

"Some of my colleagues have called this the Manhattan Project for childhood and adolescent brain development, and I completely agree. It's going to be the gold standard."

That’s because work is starting on a groundbreaking study of the subject. It's called the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development, or ABCD, Study, and nearly two dozen institutions across the U.S. will be participating in the research.

Milwaukee is one of the local sites that will collect data. The local effort is led by Dr. Krista Lisdahl, director of the UW-Milwaukee Brain Imaging and Neuropsychology laboratory. 

"Some of my colleagues have called this the Manhattan Project for childhood and adolescent brain development, and I completely agree. It's going to be the gold standard," says Lisdahl.

"What we've done in the past is have smaller studies. You know, maybe a hundred people followed for two or three years. And we've never really connected the childhood all the way into adolescence, into young adulthood period, in one study."

"We're going to be following 10,000 kids across 21 different sites throughout the country, and we're going to be following them for 10 years," she explains. "So they're going to start at ages about 9 and 10, we're going to follow them into the later teens."

The ABCD Study stands out in the history of developmental studies. Not only will it benefit from new imaging technology and increased ability to share information with other researchers, but the sample size is much larger than any previous study.

"What we've done in the past is have smaller studies. You know, maybe a hundred people followed for two or three years," says Lisdahl. "And we've never really connected the childhood all the way into adolescence, into young adulthood period, in one study."

Diversity has also been a goal of the researchers, who are deliberately looking for sample representative of adolescents in the United States. Lisdahl explains, "We're looking at things like ethnicity, gender... socioeconomic status, as well as rural vs. urban." 

"Some of the areas that we'll be studying include sleep, physical activity, parenting styles, stress and trauma, poverty, substance-use, sports injuries, mental health challenges... and how these factors might alter childhood and adolescence brain and cognitive development."

This diversity and large number of subjects will allow researchers to delve into a large variety of things that affect brain development. "We get to look at things like how many different factors directly affect emotional, social, cognitive, and brain development during this period," says Lisdahl. 

She continues, "Some of the areas that we'll be studying include sleep, physical activity, parenting styles, stress and trauma, poverty, substance-use, sports injuries, mental health challenges - such as ADHD, depression, anxiety - and how these factors might alter childhood and adolescence brain and cognitive development, and how they kind of interact."

Although the study will not conclude for another ten years, people won't have to wait a decade to see some results from the study. "It is going to be on-going, open access," she says.

Lisdahl also notes that there will be some delay so the information can be properly analyzed and released appropriately, and people will require credentials to access data from the study.

*Originally aired December 22, 2016