The University of Colorado Boulder (CU-Boulder) has been chosen by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to participate in a massive longitudinal study that aims to identify the effects of substances such as tobacco and alcohol on adolescent brains.

Among the 20 sites that the NIH project, dubbed as the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) study, will utilize is the university's Intermountain Neuroimaging Consortium. The said research will include approximately 10,000 children about 9 years old who will be followed through until their late adolescent stages. The researchers will monitor how the structure of the brain, cognition and academic attainment of the participants will be affected by their exposure to substances beginning the said age.

For CU-Boulder's part, the researchers from their Institute of Cognitive Science and the Institute for Behavioral Genetics will embark on a series of investigations that will focus on pairs of identical and fraternal twins to determine the similarities and differences of brain development among participants with the same genetic makeup. The two departments are said to perform long-term studies about twins in Colorado. Aside from these two scientific bodies, CU Anschutz Medical Campus' School of Medicine will also extend assistance.

CU-Boulder researchers are looking at using magnetic resonance imaging to visualize the anatomy and physiology of the brain in resolutions that are higher than the usual diagnostic examinations. According to Marie Banich, director of the Institute of Cognitive Science and a professor in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at CU-Boulder, coming up with images that are intricately detailed will enable their scientists to observe the fine mechanisms that occur during decision-making and emotional events.

The work of CU-Boulder researchers may reveal the extent of predisposition that adolescents have to drug use, as well as the degree of drug usage that changes the brain during serious circumstances.

"Adolescence is a time when the brain is quite sensitive to environmental influences, and the way the brain gets wired during this developmental period has lifelong implications," said Banich. She added that the specific target of the CU-Boulder team for this large endeavor is to map out the environmental and genetic determinants that influence the impact that drugs pose on the developing brain.

For John Hewitt, director of the Institute for Behavioral Genetics and a professor in the Department of Psychology at CU-Boulder, this study is a good indicator that CU-Boulder can conglomerate diverse strengths. Given that the study is large-scale, it possesses the requirements needed to come up with accurate information about the effects of substances to the adolescent brain.

The results of the study may be used in the formulation of policies in the areas of education, law enforcement and health.

Banich iterated that CU-Boulder has long been performing interdisciplinary studies, enabling them to bring together the right team of experts. This collaboration is an example of the one-of-a-kind asset that CU-Boulder has in terms of biobehavioral sciences.

Photo: James Alby | Flickr

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