Researching how teens’ brains develop

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More than 300 area children are taking part in a long-term research project designed to shed light on how social and environmental factors ranging from video gaming to smoking to sleep patterns affect teenage brain development. 

Conducted locally by University of Rochester Medical Center researchers, the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development study, known as the ABCD study, is part of a massive National Institutes of Health project spanning 21 sites across the country. All told, 11,874 children are enrolled. 

Locally, 339 children—ages 9 and 10—are participating in the study, which has drawn children from the Rochester, Webster, Greece, Brighton, Pittsford and Newark school districts. That number surpassed the local project’s goal of signing up 275 children, URMC officials say. 

Participation of families who volunteered to be part of the study “will eventually help other families, educators, health care professionals, and policymakers know more about the developing brain,” says Ray Giamartino, the Rochester City School District’s liaison to the study.

Giamartino, the district’s chief accountability officer, is one of 12 members of a community liaison board set up to oversee the project. Others on the board include URMC and other school districts’ officials, a parent of a participant, and representatives of several area social agencies and youth organizations. 

It has long been accepted wisdom that teenagers often do not have the fully developed social skills and judgment needed to safely and successfully navigate society. Only recently have developments such magnetic resonance imaging given cognitive scientists tools to track brain functioning to map how physiological and neurological development relates to the process of maturing to full adulthood.    

Only in the 2000s have MRI studies revealed, for example, that until sometime in their 20s individuals often rely more on impulses generated by the amygdala, a brain region considered to be the seat of emotions, than on the not yet fully developed cerebral cortex, the part of the brain that generates the conscious thought we call reason and intellect. 

What such advances have not pinned down is exactly how teenagers’ still-forming brains are affected by video games, social media, and a host of other such environmental and social factors including many unknown to previous generations.

To get a better handle on such questions, the $300 million ABCD study plans to longitudinally study children enrolled in the study for the next 10 years.

The study partly involves having the children and their parents regularly fill out questionnaires and also having the children regularly do games and puzzles designed to give researchers a window into the children’s cognitive development. Researchers in URMC’s Cognitive Neuropsychology Lab will also look at MRI scans of participants’ brains with scans done at two-year intervals. Results of the larger national study are planned to be compiled and released to researchers annually.

Scans taken at the project’s start revealed an unexpected amount of variability in brain structure, a detail that has already yielded a positive result for some participants, says Ed Freedman, co-principal investigator of the URMC component of the ABCD study.

“Most of these differences have no clinical relevance,” Freedman says. “But we have also seen some anomalies that require referral to pediatric neurologists. It’s not feasible for every child (in the country) to have a brain scan, (but) this study may give us more insight into how to spot these problems early on, before they become significant health problems.”

The ABCD project is the largest of its type ever attempted. Researchers hope it will be as revelatory as the Framingham Study, a 70-year study of cardiovascular-disease risk factors that spanned three generations and yielded much of what is now known about heart disease.   

One thought on “Researching how teens’ brains develop

  1. It would be interesting to do the same study involving children living in a society that mimics that of old — the Haredi of Israel come to mind — wherein there’s no exposure to video games, social media and the host of “outside factors” currently thought to influence youth.

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