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Brain Scans, Saliva Tests, and Baby Teeth: Inside the Massive, Government-Funded Effort to Understand How Kids’ Brains Develop

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Researchers expect this massive endeavor, receiving $30 million in federal funding per year, will transform our understanding of brain development. Neuroscientists are positively giddy about ABCD, and for good reason: It is larger and more racially and socioeconomically diverse than any comparable study to date.

“We’re going to be working with this dataset for decades,” said Jennifer Pfeifer, a University of Oregon developmental neuroscientist who is not involved with the study. “I think it’s going to be an absolute boon for sciences.”

The kids were recruited at a critical age: Most 10-year-olds are old enough to have the patience to sit through hours of tests, but young enough that they haven’t experienced the many critical neurological changes that come with the second decade of life. Over the course of the study, which is now in its second year, the cohort will have all sorts of experiences outside the lab that could affect their neurological development. They’ll be exposed to varying levels of pollution, screen time, sleep, and physical and emotional trauma. Some will become addicted to drugs. Some will suffer concussions. Some will develop the mental health issues that tend to emerge during adolescence, like depression and schizophrenia.

ABCD is practicing the increasingly popular “open science” philosophy: Its reams of data will not belong to the researchers but will be anonymized and released to the scientific community each year. “A lot of the other studies are only publicly released years and years after it’s done,” said Deanna Barch, chair of the brain science and psychology department at Washington University in St. Louis, an ABCD site. “The taxpayers are spending a ton of money to fund this study. Making it available is the only way to ensure as many different clever, creative minds can look at the data as possible.”

A number of studies have already come out based on the first year of ABCD data. Though it’s too early to draw any conclusions about cause and effect, researchers have made some striking observations. Barch’s team found that boys involved in sports tended to exhibit fewer symptoms of depression. (This didn’t hold for girls, however.) Another study found that living in poorer neighborhoods was associated with smaller amygdala and hippocampal volume, measures associated with slower cognitive processing. One paper looked at rates of suicidal ideation among kids who identify as gay or bisexual; another paper examined the prevalence of eating disorders.

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