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History of the Study

Adolescence is a time of dramatic physical, emotional, and intellectual growth. During the past decade, neuroimaging techniques—which allow researchers to look at the brain in a non-invasive way—have shown that it is also a period of dramatic changes in brain structure and function.

Adolescence is known as a time of burgeoning independence, when many risk-taking behaviors emerge. Teens sometimes experiment with cigarettes, alcohol, and marijuana—precisely when the developing brain is most vulnerable to the short- and long-term effects of drugs.

Collaborative Research on Addiction at NIH (CRAN) is a partnership between the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), and the National Cancer Institute (NCI). It was created in 2013 to foster research in poly (multiple) substance use. These organizations recognized the need to understand how substance use and other experiences during adolescence influence development and determined that a large-scale, long-term study was needed to address these questions.

Now is the right time for such a study. The scientific community is poised to take advantage of new, powerful tools that were unavailable only a few years ago. For example, developments in neuroimaging have increased our ability to study safely the developing brain and link information about its functioning to behavioral outcomes. Such studies produce a huge amount of data. Recent advances in computing and analytics now enable scientists across the country (and the world) to share and analyze this information, which rapidly expands the scientific questions that can be answered while maintaining the research participants’ privacy.

CRAN’s initial goal was to learn as much as possible about individuals before they start using substances, then follow them through the period of highest risk. However, we know that substance use is only one part of the larger picture of adolescent development. To take full advantage of the knowledge that will be gained from this project, additional NIH Institutes and Centers became partners in this venture:

  • The Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute on Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) is participating to understand healthy brain development and traumatic brain injury during development.
  • The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) is participating to understand the factors that influence the course and severity of mental disorders—which often emerge during adolescence—and their relationship to substance use.
  • The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) is participating to measure how frequently sports injuries (e.g., concussions) take place during adolescence and to determine their impact on brain development.
  • The NIH Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research (OBSSR) is participating to investigate the role of many environmental and behavioral factors that affect growth and development—such as sleep, physical activity, and screen time.
  • The National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities (NIMHD) is participating to understand the various factors that lead to health disparities during adolescence.

In 2015, these NIH Institutes and Centers came together to fund and establish the ABCD Consortium, specifically to follow a cohort of 10,000 children from pre-adolescence into adulthood. Data gathered from this large cohort will allow the creation of baseline standards for normal brain development (similar to those that currently exist for height, weight, and other physical characteristics).

Ultimately, the study results will shed light on numerous facets of cognitive, social, emotional, and physical development during adolescence.