NIH awards $5 million brain development study grant

Natalie DeMenthon

Natalie DeMenthon

Illustration by Natalie DeMenthon

Andrew Crider, Contributing Writer

VCU won a $5 million grant from the National Institute of Health to examine the brain structure and function of 10,000 children as they age. The study will be the largest neuroimaging study of the human brain in university history and will involve 20 locations from Hawaii to Rhode Island over a 10-year period.

The project, called the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD), hopes to examine the effect of drugs, alcohol and other environmental factors on the brain as it develops.

Infographic by Miranda Leung
Infographic by Miranda Leung

According to Bethany Deeds, a health scientist at the National institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), the study will answer several questions about brain development.

“The ABCD Study will seek to address many questions related to substance use and development that will help inform prevention and treatment research priorities, public health strategies, and policy decisions,” Deeds said.

VCU won the research grant after months of competition between various other research groups. For the competition, VCU was partnered with the University of Minnesota, the University of Washington St. Louis and the University of Colorado.  

Winning the grant means VCU researchers will become leaders in what medical professionals are calling one of the most important studies in the next decade.

“It is wonderful that our team at VCU headed up by doctors Neale and Bjork is playing such a major role in what is sure to be one of the most important longitudinal imaging and genetic studies of drug use and abuse of the next decade,” said Kenneth Kendler, the director of the Virginia Institute for Psychiatric and Behavioral Genetics.

One of the principal investigators, James Bjork, has been studying brain development in adolescents for the over 15 years. According to Bjork, the study will provide new insight into the development of adolescent brains.

“What’s novel about the ABCD USA project is it will use leading edge neuroimaging technology to very precisely capture the structure and dynamic function of the brain,” Bjork said.

VCU will use its brand new Collaborative Advanced Research Imaging Program to conduct the research. The program consists of a new MRI capable of high detail imaging of brains.

“It’s only been in the last 18 months or so that a research dedicated facility devoted to scanning and neurobehavior testing in human subjects has been constructed at VCU,” Bjork said.

Bjork said the study will be able to relate individual differences between children and their brain features. For example, the structure or functioning of the brain as detected with MRI and relate those to various kinds of exposures like environmental factors or if the child decides to use drugs or alcohol.

Data gathered at VCU and other testing locations will then be shared with doctors around the world so the data can be better analyzed.

“Other investigators from around the planet will be able to apply to access to the data for a whole host of value added discoveries,” Bjork said.

According to Bjork, this international collaboration is indicative of modern medical study.

“With the increasing legalization of cannabis and the concerns for what might that general availability mean for kids, it might add some more information on what brain features are linked to those kinds of exposures,” Bjork said.

VCU is the home of the Mid-Atlantic Twin Registry, one of the largest collections of twin registries in North America. Bjork said that VCU likely received the grant to participate in the study because of its unique ability to perform the study with twins.

“I think what really sealed the deal for us, with twins, we offer information with what other sites could not offer,” Bjork said.

According to Bjork, performing the Study with twins will allow doctors to compare genetically similar brains with different habits, showing a clear effect of the habit from normal development.

“If you have twins and especially if the twins differ in their behavior in what the twins are engaged in you have a way of approximating of what could have been if the teen had not used the drugs,” Bjork said.

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