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Landmark Study Investigates Substance Use and Adolescent Brain Development

Weill Cornell Medicine has received more than $10 million from the National Institutes of Health to study the effects of substances of abuse on the developing brain. The study will follow approximately 10,000 children beginning at ages 9 to10, before they initiate drug use, through the period of highest risk for substance use and other mental health disorders. Scientists will track exposure to substances, including nicotine, alcohol, and marijuana, and measure intellectual, emotional, social, and physical development together with brain development using state-of-the-art structural and functional neuroimaging technology.

Dr. BJ Casey

The Weill Cornell Medicine portion of the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) Study will follow 1,100 teens and specifically focus on predictors of early-onset substance use and how these substances alter the developmental trajectory of the brain in the near and long term.

"I'm really excited about this study because adolescence is a time when the brain is capable of remarkable adaptability in light of the many social, physical, sexual, and intellectual challenges that this developmental phase brings, yet a peak time for the clinical onset of most mental illnesses," said Dr. BJ Casey, director of the Sackler Institute for Developmental Psychobiology and a professor of psychology in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medicine who is leading the grant at Weill Cornell Medicine. "Trying to understand the brain changes that lead to risk for mental illnesses including substance use disorders and those that can be harnessed to prevent these illnesses is really important and hasn't been done at this scale before."

Dr. Casey and her collaborators, including those at the University of California, San Diego, where data coordination and analysis will take place, will collect mental and physical health information. This will include data from high-resolution brain scans and genetic material, as well as information about sleep patterns, diet and exercise, social media use, and other environmental factors. Dr. Casey has organized an interdisciplinary team of investigators to meet this challenge including co-investigators Drs. Barry Kosofsky and Jonathan Dyke at Weill Cornell Medicine; Dr. Deborah Estrin of Cornell Tech and Weill Cornell Medicine; co-Principal Investigator Dr. Rita Goldstein and her colleagues at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai; and Drs. Nim Tottenham and Diana Martinez at Columbia University.

While collecting the information and creating a longitudinal snapshot of this potentially turbulent time in a person's development is important, so too is determining how these data can be used to help at-risk teenagers from going down a path of chronic mental illness, said Dr. Casey, who is a paid consultant to and receives research support from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation for work relating to adolescent brain development and juvenile justice reform.

"The adolescent brain is going through many dynamic changes that not only put the teen at risk, but that provide a window of opportunity for positive change," she said. "We hope that our findings will inform new public policies designed to protect these young people and for intervening when they're at their most vulnerable."

Posted October 15, 2015 3:04 PM | Permalink to this post