(Update: What has the ABCD Study found so far? Find out here.)
It seems like for every question we answer about brain science, there are a hundred more we haven’t answered yet. NIDA’s mission is to use science to understand the causes and consequences of drug use and to use that knowledge to improve people’s health.
What we know so far
We know that people’s brains keep developing until they’re in their mid-20s. That means drug and alcohol use can be particularly risky while a person is growing up. We also know that people who develop an addiction to drugs have differences in their brains compared to people who don’t, but there’s a lot we don’t know. For example, which came first—brain differences or drug use? We’re excited to announce that a huge study is getting underway to answer this and many other questions about teens’ brains.
Introducing the ABCD Study
The Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development Study (or ABCD Study) is being funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIDA’s parent organization). This will be a “longitudinal study,” where researchers study a large group of people every year over a long period of time. For the ABCD Study, researchers plan to enroll 10,000 kids ages 9 or 10 from all around the United States and use brain scans along with games and interviews to see how they develop over time.
Hopefully, most kids won’t use tobacco, alcohol, or other drugs in their teen years. However, if some of them do, the researchers will be able to compare their brain scans, their abilities to play games on an iPad, and other experiences from before and after they use drugs to see how drug use affects them. They will also be able to look at the brains of all the kids who end up using drugs and alcohol to see whether there are similarities among these kids that put them at greater risk.
Mysteries to solve
The ABCD Study may be able to answer a lot of questions about substances and other things that affect teens. Some questions, like these, are related to drug use:
- What’s the connection between using tobacco, alcohol, and drugs and mental illness? For instance, does using these substances cause a person to become depressed or to develop schizophrenia; or do people who have a mental illness use drugs/alcohol to “self-medicate” as a way to try to control their symptoms rather than seeing a doctor?
- How do genes and other factors (biological, social, family, etc.) affect whether a teen uses drugs, and how do drugs affect a teen’s family life, sleep patterns, and school success?
- Do some substances act as “gateway drugs” that make people more likely to use other drugs?
And some questions are not related to drugs:
- How does screen time affect social and brain development?
- Can sports injuries damage the brain?
- How does lack of sleep affect schoolwork?
- Are there extracurricular activities or other experiences that help kids do better in school and become more successful?
This is a massive study, and the only one to look at brain development in this many teens for this many years. Ultimately, we hope this research will help us understand how teens can stay healthy as they grow into adulthood.
Stay tuned—as results come out of this study, researchers are going to let us know what they learn! In the meantime, we’re discovering a lot of other things about how drugs affect the brain and overall health; keep up with our research right here at the NIDA Drugs & Health Blog.