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Studying the Pre-Adolescent Brain to Gain Insight into Mental Health Disorders

Author: Jennifer Michalowski

Pre-teen boy

Studying the pre-teen brain is providing a foundation for understanding risk factors that lead to mental health disorders later in life. Photo credit: Clint McKoy

University of Utah Health scientists and collaborators with the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) Consortium have developed a rich resource for studying how the brain changes and matures during adolescence: a collection of functional MRI scans revealing patterns of brain activity in more than 6,000 nine- and ten-year-old children. The findings are an essential foundation for the ABCD Study, which is investigating how childhood experiences influence brain development and impact behavior later in life.

The ABCD Study is the largest long-term study of brain development and child health in the United States. Nearly 12,000 children and their families are participating at 21 sites across the country, where researchers are tracking their physical and behavioral development over a ten-year period beginning at age nine or ten. The study spans a period of intense brain development characterized by rapid growth and the fine-tuning of neural circuits.

The new functional MRI data, reported June 7, 2021, in the journal Nature Neuroscience, reveals which parts of the brain are active when children engage in each of three cognitive tasks: reward processing, working memory, and inhibitory control. These functions are part of the brain’s executive function system, a crucial set of brain networks that support skills that develops rapidly between the ages of nine and nineteen. To track how the brain circuits involved in these tasks change as children get older, researchers will collect new MRI scans every two years over the course of the study.


There's never been a resource like this available to us before.

Deborah Yurgelun-Todd, PhD

“We now have a very large database from which we can quantify and describe brain function. There's never been a resource like this available to us before,” says psychiatry professor and Huntsman Mental Health Institute investigator Deborah Yurgelun-Todd, Ph.D., a principal investigator on the ABCD study.

MRI brain images

Yurgelun-Todd says the three cognitive functions included in the study are of particular interest because there is evidence that the brain handles these tasks differently in people with mood disorders, as well as in people who use drugs or alcohol. “We wanted to make sure we captured all the changes that occurred through adolescence, because that's a time that we often see the emergence of depression, anxiety, and substance use,” she says. “So with this baseline data, we'll start to see whether brain patterns change in children who develop these problems compared to those who do not.”

Researchers will also investigate whether there are early signs that someone is at risk for these conditions, or struggling more generally with executive function. “We know that if you have executive function or cognitive difficulties, the earlier we can intervene, the better it is outcome-wise,” says psychologist Erin McGlade, Ph.D., clinical director for the ABCD study at the U. “I think this study will help inform when some of those changes do or don't occur, and at what age we want to be keeping an eye on kids.”

Deborah Yurgelun-Todd, PhD

In addition to neuroimaging and assessments of physical health, researchers with the ABCD study are conducting behavioral and cognitive assessments of study participants and documenting a wide range of experiences that may impact physical and mental health, such as sleep patterns, screen time, involvement in the arts, sports participation, drug use, and even the social isolation that many children have experienced due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The ABCD Consortium will use this data to explore how these many variables interact to influence brain development and behavior. All data collected through the ABCD study is also freely available to the research community for further analysis.

Enrollment for the ABCD study began in 2016. Participants were recruited from schools around the study regions, with the goal of assembling a diverse cohort whose demographic composition reflects that of the country. More than 1,000 children and their families are participating through the U, making it the largest study site.

“We are very pleased that the community is willing to engage in this research, because it's their volunteerism that makes the difference,” says Yurgelun-Todd. “This is the way that we gather data to make healthcare decisions and maybe even educational decisions. The extent to which these families have been willing to commit to understanding and improving health has been a great thing.”

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Learn more about the ABCD Study at the University of Utah.