As part of landmark research into the effects of adolescent substance use on the developing brain, Children’s Hospital Los Angeles has been awarded a five-year grant totaling almost $8 million from the National Institutes of Health.

The Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) study is a national longitudinal investigation of the short-term and long-term impact of substance use on brain development. The project will recruit 10,000 youths before they begin using alcohol, marijuana, tobacco and other drugs, then follow them for 10 years into early adulthood.

Principal investigator Elizabeth Sowell, PhD, director of the Developmental Cognitive Neuroimaging Laboratory in the Institute for the Developing Mind at CHLA, said that her research will place special emphasis on questions of socioeconomic status, the impact of prenatal exposures to alcohol and other drugs of abuse. The impact of pubertal hormones on brain development will also be part of the study, to be conducted in collaboration with scientists at UCLA.

“We at CHLA are perfectly suited to conduct these studies, with both state-of-the-art brain imaging facilities and expertise in neurodevelopment through the Institute for the Developing Mind,” said Sowell, who is also a professor of pediatrics at the Keck School of Medicine of USC. She added that the NIH funding provides the opportunity to further address research on how socioeconomic disparity impacts brain and cognitive development, and how this disparity influences drug use and mental health.

“There is a real opportunity here to better understand how to help kids reach their full potential,” she said.

The NIH awarded 13 grants to institutions around the country in order to follow children beginning at age 9 or 10, before drug use is initiated, and through the period of highest risk for substance use and mental health disorders. Scientists will track exposure to substances that include nicotine, alcohol and marijuana, focusing on their impact on academic achievement, cognitive skills and mental health, as well as brain structure and function.

The ABCD study seeks to address questions related to substance use, including possible links to the risk for mental illness and the impact on physical health, plus psychological development, learning and memory, as well as other behaviors.

More information about the ABCD Study, including protection of patient confidentiality and parental consent, can be found here.

The ABCD Study was initiated by the Collaborative Research on Addiction at NIH (CRAN), a consortium of institutes that include a focus on addiction research. CRAN is comprised of NIDA, NIAAA and the National Cancer Institute. Other NIH collaborators in this project are the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the National Institute of Mental Health, the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities, the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, and the Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research.

Since 1932, Children’s Hospital Los Angeles has been affiliated with the Keck School of Medicine of USC, where CHLA physicians also hold faculty positions.

— Debra Kain