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CU Boulder nabs $11M grant to continue brain research

Study, launched in 2015, tracks teenage brain development

A still image taken from a University of Colorado Boulder ABCD Study VO video posted to
(Courtesy of University of Colorado Boulder)
A still image taken from a University of Colorado Boulder ABCD Study VO video posted to (Courtesy of University of Colorado Boulder)

University of Colorado Boulder researchers received $11 million from the National Institutes of Health to continue studying brain development and health in teenagers.

Launched in 2015, the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development study brings together researchers at 21 locations to track the brain development of 11,750 children from ages 9 or 10 until their early 20s.

CU Boulder is working with 565 adolescent participants, most of whom are twins.

Studying twins helps researchers determine how strongly genetics influence behavior and the brain, said John Hewitt, director of the university’s Institute for Behavioral Genetics and co-principal investigator on the study.

“The idea of getting nearly 12,000 kids and imaging their brains and getting an idea of the function of their brain every 2 years over 10 years is way beyond the scope of what we’ve done up to this point,” Hewitt said. “This is a study we’re absolutely thrilled to be part of because of its scope and promise. It’s funded at a level that makes it really substantial and there’s going to be real knowledge from it.”

Beyond the functional magnetic resonance imaging scans, researchers gather information through interviews, behavioral assessments, physiological and cognitive tests and by collecting blood, saliva and even baby teeth.

So far, 32 studies have been published based on two datasets produced by the study in its early stages.

Researchers have now gathered baseline data, and the next seven years will focus on how brains change during the teenage years, said Marie Banich, executive director of Intermountain Neuroimaging Center at CU Boulder and co-principal investigator.

“It’s like watching a time-lapse movie of the brains of thousands of kids developing over time. The sheer scope and richness of the data we are collecting is incredible,” Banich said in a statement.

The in-person testing and evaluation was stopped because of the coronavirus pandemic, Hewitt said, but researchers plan to resume limited in-person meetings in July.

“We depend on and are grateful to the families who are making this commitment over the course of 10 years or more,” Hewitt said. “It will define our understanding of the adolescent brain and cognitive development.”

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