Studying the Impact of Substance Abuse On Adolescent Brain Development

Issue Date: 
November 2, 2015

A research team in the University of Pittsburgh Department of Psychiatry has been awarded a $5 million National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant to participate in a multisite study focusing on the impact that adolescent use of marijuana, alcohol, and other drugs has on the developing brain.

The Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) Study will follow nearly 10,000 nine- and 10-year-old children over the next several years, beginning prior to drug use and continuing through the period of highest risk for substance abuse and other mental health disorders. Nearly 500 local children are expected to participate in the study.

Duncan B. ClarkDuncan B. Clark, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, will lead the local research site. In total, the ABCD grants will fund 11 research sites, a coordinating center, and a data analysis and informatics center.

“There is much to learn about the effects of marijuana, alcohol, and other substances on the development of the adolescent brain. At this time, there are inconsistent findings in small studies,” said Clark. “For that reason, the NIH has decided to fund this very large prospective study to follow children before they have engaged in any substance use or abuse, through their teen years and into young adulthood.”

Armed with NIH funding, the Pitt team will address key issues such as the impact of occasional versus regular substance use on brain development, the link between substance use and mental illness, physical health and development, and academic achievement. Study results will be used to prioritize prevention and treatment research as well as influence public health strategies and policy decisions.

“This will be the first research project to study such a large group of individuals from early in development, when most would not have used drugs, to possibly peak use in adolescence, and to explore different pathways that contribute to decreases in substance use with maturation,” said research team member Beatriz Luna, Staunton Professor of Pediatrics and Psychiatry and a professor of psychology. “This will enable us to understand predictors of use and the nature of effects of substance use during brain development through childhood and adolescence.”