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As Easy As ABCD: A Look At the Most Ambitious Neurodevelopment Study to Date

By Avery St. Sauveur

Artwork by Reese Green

The room is pretty unadorned, as far as hospital rooms go: white walls, white tile floors, a single bed in the corner. I’m seated beside a middle schooler at wobbly table, huddled around an iPad and a two-milliliter plastic tube. I explain that I need the tube to be filled with 1.5 milliliters of liquid spit, ideally with as few bubbles as possible. I’m met with a pair of wide, semi-horrified twelve-year-old eyes; this is a pretty standard reaction from a preteen being asked to spit in a tube. I set a timer for five minutes, pull the iPad closer to me, and begin another round of questions. “So, what time did you wake up this morning?”

I’ve been working for the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) study for about nine months now. As a research assistant, I collect data from hundreds of middle school-aged Vermonters, anything from thoughts and opinions on drug and alcohol use to dynamic brain images. The ABCD study isn’t the first study to collect this kind of data from adolescents, nor is it the first to follow adolescents longitudinally. However, it is the first of its breadth: nationally, across 21 different study sites, over 12,000 adolescents make annual appointments for data collection, and they’ll do so for a decade. Remarkably, 99% of adolescents and their families have remained in the study since the start of recruitment in 2016 (Casey et al., 2018). Arguably, this is one of the most ambitious efforts to date in understanding the adolescent development trajectory.

Of course, data collection is just step one of the process. Another important factor renders ABCD unique when comparing it to other studies of its kind: an open science model (Casey et al., 2018). Rather than waiting 10 full years to release the data collected by all 21 study sites, the creators of the project have instead opted into a different approach, releasing data sets annually to the general scientific community. This model has already generated a steady stream of literature from scientists nationally (and even internationally). For the next several years, as we track our participants through middle and high school, researchers everywhere will form new hypotheses about how the teen brain develops.

Just this year, thirteen publications have cited the ABCD protocol and/or data set. These publications run the gamut as far as subject matter goes: everything from assessing the perceived cognitive benefits of bilingualism (surprise: there may not be any) to sports involvement and depressive symptoms (ABCD, 2019). ABCD is enabling researchers to evaluate ways to treat impulsivity-related disorders in children (hint: encourage adequate sleep and exercise and limit screen time) and to understand the increased risk for mood disorders and suicidality in sexual minority children (Guerrero et al., 2019; Blashill & Calzo, 2019). ABCD data is even helping researchers understand how anhedonia (a loss of interest in previously-pleasurable activities) affects major depression, and even tracing the neural correlates of psychotic experiences in children via neuroimaging (Pornpattananangkul et al., 2019; Karcher et al., 2019).

The hope is that after 10 years of data collection, and ideally countless publications like these, we will better elluminate how the adolescent brain develops the way that it does. What exactly does this mean? Well, in reality, this study stands to reveal the implications of a vast array of topics. What might a healthy adolescent brain look like? How is screen time altering young brains? Can we predict future substance use or mental health struggles? Can we reverse the damage we do in development, and if so, how?

With the ABCD dataset forever expanding and changing, there is endless opportunity to tackle the black box that is the developing brain. While the need to spit in a tube may currently escape our young and often easily-embarrassed participants, they are in reality providing a priceless gift to the scientific community: data.

To keep up with the ABCD study, click here:


Blashill A. J. & Calzo, J. P. (2019). Sexual minority children: mood disorders and suicidality disparities. Journal of Affective Disorders, 246(1), 96-98. doi: 10.1016/j.jad.2018.12.040

Casey, B. J., Cannonier, T., Conley, M. I., Cohen, A. O., Barch, D. M., Heitzeg, M. M., … ABCD Imaging Acquisition Workgroup (2018). The Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) study: Imaging acquisition across 21 sites. Developmental cognitive neuroscience, 32, 43–54. doi:10.1016/j.dcn.2018.03.001

Guerrero, M. D., Barnes, J. D., Walsh, J. J., Chaput, J. P., Tremblay, M. S., & Goldfield, G. S. (2019). 24-hour movement behaviors and impulsivity. American Academy of Pediatrics, 144(5). doi: 10.1542/peds.2019-0187

Karcher, N. R. & Barch, D. M. (2019). Resting-state functional connectivity and psychotic-like experiences in childhood: results from the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development study. Biological Psychiatry, 86(1), 7-15. doi: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2019.01.013

Pornpattananangkul, N., Leibenluft, E., Pine, D. S., & Stringaris, A. (2019). Association between childhood anhedonia and alterations in large-scale resting-state networks and task-evolved activation. JAMA Psychiatry, 76(6), 624-633. doi: 10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2019.0020

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