Researchers are following more than 11,000 children for the next 10 years, studying how childhood experiences affect brain development.

Meghan Overdeep
February 5, 2018

For generations, parents of teenagers have been dying to know what’s going on in their kids’ heads. Is all that screen time really melting their brains? What about drugs and alcohol? School and social stress?

Now, with the help of a groundbreaking new study, researchers hope to finally reveal the impact of a number of common factors on brain development during this crucial and turbulent stage of life.

The Adolescent Brain and Cognitive Development Study, or “ABCD,” launched by the National Institutes of Health is the largest study of teen brains ever conducted in the United States. Researchers are following more than 11,000 children for the next decade, studying how childhood experiences (such as sports, video games, social media, unhealthy sleep patterns, and smoking) affect brain development. The results will hopefully provide parents, teachers, lawmakers and doctors with practical information about raising happy, healthy teens in a rapidly-changing world.

“It's a little frightening that we have all these children today who are spending 10 hours a day in front of a screen for their socialization, and we don't know what's going to happen to their brains or how that's going to affect their relationships when they get older,” Susan Bookheimer, one of the study's lead investigators and a neuropsychologist at UCLA, told Today.

In the 10-year study, kids across the country will undergo regular physical exams, cognitive tests and MRI scans. Along with their parents, they will also fill out detailed, confidential questionnaires about their habits and lifestyles.

“We can look at boys versus girls. We can look at different socioeconomic status, we can look at different exposures. We can look at kids who are in high-stress schools versus low-stress schools,” Bookheimer added. “We hope that at the end we'll be able to say, ‘Children who do these kinds of activities actually end up doing a lot better than children who don't.’

Researchers are still in the process of recruiting preteens (age 9 and 10) and their parents residing near participating medical centers. In the South, these include: Florida International University in Miami, Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, University of Florida in Gainesville and Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond.

For more information, visit ABCDStudy.org.