Observation

Massive NIH Effort to Understand Substance Use in Adolescents

APS Fellow BJ Casey of Weill Medical College of Cornell University is among the researchers receiving funding from 13 grants announced by the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) in September. The grants, which are being distributed to research institutions around the United States, are part of the newly unveiled Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) Study, which will enlist 10,000 young participants for the purpose of studying how drugs affect the teenage brain.

In 2013, Casey edited a special issue of the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science that addressed subjects related to the teenage brain. That issue included articles on sensitivity to rewards, functional connectivity, decision-making, peer pressure, and alcohol use.

As an expert on the adolescent brain, Casey sees the ABCD Study as a tremendous opportunity. The teenage years, Casey said, are the “time of life when the brain is more ‘plastic’ than it will ever be again, capable of incredible adaptability in light of the many challenges that adolescence brings yet also a time when mental illnesses peak.” Casey believes that the ABCD Study is giving scientists an important opportunity “to discover how we can use this plasticity to change behavior and ultimately reduce the unacceptably high burden of mental illness on young people today and ensure a healthier society tomorrow.”

Other APS Members who will be working on ABCD Study grants include APS Fellows Marie T. Banich (University of Colorado Boulder), Deanna M. Barch (Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis), William G. Iacono (University of Minnesota), and Robert A. Zucker (University of Michigan); APS Charter Member Andrew C. Heath (Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis), and Sara Jo Nixon (University of Florida).

ABCD Study participants will begin the study at age 9 or 10, before they are likely to have begun using drugs. The study will follow these children through adolescence, the period during which the risk for substance use and mental health disorders generally reaches its peak.

APS Fellow George Koob, director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, pointed out in a statement that “the ABCD Study is an important opportunity to closely examine, in humans, the hypothesized link between adolescent alcohol abuse and long-term harmful effects on brain development and function.”

The project aims to determine how occasional use as well as regular use of alcohol, marijuana, tobacco, and other drugs influences such matters as brain development, social development, physical and psychological health, cognitive abilities, and academic achievement. In addition, the ABCD study will examine which genetic and environmental factors influence substance abuse and whether specific drugs increase the likelihood of using other substances.

“An important aspect of ABCD is the integration of neurobiological, behavioral, and environmental factors that contribute to substance use and abuse, which allows us to better understand the reciprocal relationship between brain and behavior processes,” William Riley, who directs the NIH Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research, told the Observer.

Robert T. Croyle, Director of the Division of Cancer Control and Population Sciences at the National Cancer Institute, noted in an email that findings from the ABCD Study will provide valuable information about drug-related health risks in an era when “changing policies and attitudes toward marijuana use and the introduction of new tobacco products have generated confusion among parents as well as policy makers.”

Nora D. Volkow, Director of the US National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), agrees. “Adolescents have access to high potency marijuana and greater varieties of nicotine delivery devices than previous generations,” Volkow said in a statement on NIDA’s website. “We want to know how that and other trends affect the trajectory of the developing brain.”

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