BJ Casey — The Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) Study

LC: I’m wondering what your current research interests and projects are. I’ve heard you’re working on this ABCD study.

BJC: We are working with 635 children and their families every six months as part of the landmark Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) study following brain development and health outcomes in over 11,000 nine-or-ten-year-old children in the US over the next ten years.  Sometimes the assessments take eight hours, so every single day we are communicating, scheduling, assessing a family or making sure our data were entered correctly and completely. Ten years is a long time for these families to give, so it’s a huge commitment for them too. The families have been so incredibly generous with their time, and hopefully they’ll continue for the duration of the study.

We’ve just recently been able to get additional funding from the National Institutes of Justice and the CDC because they’re interested in the emergence of criminal behavior. Many people think that criminal behavior is inherent in individuals that get arrested and end up in jail… but in our country we have a disproportionate number of minorities being arrested, and that can impact their development. So I’m more interested in the impact contact with the law has on kids’ later development.

Is that the main driving force behind ABCD?

No, the study is funded by many NIH institutes because we are getting information on everything from exposure to toxins, poverty, and violence to the time kids spend on sports activities, sleep and screen time. We are also getting biospecimens, MRI scans, social and environmental information. One of the original driving forces of the study was to examine the effect of substance use on the developing brain to disentangle the effects of what may lead to abuse versus the effects of use. In most of the studies on the effects of substances and alcohol on the brain to date, the people have been using for a while, so you don’t know if it’s the use or that their brains were different even before use.

Are these therapeutic drugs, or are these substance abuse situations?

Originally the study was based on trying to understand the effects of illicit substance use and abuse on the developing brain, but we also collect information about medications that they are taking. My view about substance abuse is more in line with there being problems even before the child abuses drugs or alcohol. The rate of addiction hasn’t changed that much in this country over the years and unlike neurodegenerative diseases where it just gets worse and worse, you can recover from addiction and alcoholism. So I think environmental factors and mental health problems might be driving use and abuse, almost like self-treatment, but the problem is that substances of abuse aren’t medications.

I think that rather than thinking “This is what drugs do to your brain” that we may need to ask what was going on in the brain before the child started to use and abuse substances. This a question we’ll be able to address with the ABCD data since hardly any children at nine or ten years old are using and abusing substances.  The National Institute of Drug Abuse is the primary force behind the study, but at this point other institutes (cancer, child development, mental health, heart lung and blood, etc.) are supporting it too. The study will provide a wealth of health data in many domains that will hopefully inform interventions, treatments and social, educational, health and legal policies to improve the lives of young people.

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