NIH Data Release on Teen Brains a Boon for Neuroscientists

Megan Brooks

February 13, 2018

Today, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) released "unparalleled" interim baseline data of 9- and 10-year-olds from the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) study, the largest long-term study of brain development and child health in the United States.

"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," Nora D. Volkow, MD, director, National Institute on Drug Abuse, said in a statement.

"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," Volkow said.

According to the NIH, more than 7500 youth and their families have been recruited to the ABCD study, well over half the participant goal. The study aims to enroll a total of 11,500 children by the end of 2018. 

This interim data set released today provides "high-quality" baseline data on the first 4500 9- to 10-year-old children enrolled in the study, 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).

Extraordinary Opportunities

Roughly 30 terabytes of data — about three times the size of the Library of Congress collection — are being released.  The data will be 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.

"Sharing ABCD data and other related data sets 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 NIMH Director Joshua A. Gordon, MD, PhD. "These data sets provide extraordinary opportunities for computational neuroscientists to address problems with direct public health relevance."

The data set will allow researchers to address many questions related to adolescent brain development that will help inform future prevention and treatment efforts, public health strategies, and policy decisions. These include the following:

  • How do sports injuries affect developmental outcomes?

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

  • How does the occasional vs regular use of substances (eg, 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, PhD, director, National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

Participants in the ABCD study will be followed for 10 years, and data are collected on a semi-annual and annual basis through interviews and behavioral testing. Neuroimaging data, including high-resolution MRI, are collected every 2 years to measure changes in brain structure and function.

The ABCD Coordinating Center and Data Analysis and Informatics Center are housed at the University of California, San Diego, and recruitment is being conducted at 21 study sites across the country. More information is available on the ABCD website.

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