What Is The ABCD Study?

Group of 4 smiling teens

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Key Takeaways

  • The ABCD study follows children throughout adolescence to learn more about how their experiences shape developmental outcomes.
  • It tracks individual children's development over an extended period of time.
  • Data from the ABCD study can help policymakers, parents, and educators.

You might have read an article or seen research citing something called the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development Study (ABCD). You may be wondering what it is and why it's so widely cited. The ABCD study is the largest long-term research on brain development and child health in the United States. It follows children from the onset of adolescence through early adulthood, aiming to pinpoint how their experiences affect their development. This information can then be used to shape programs, policies, and recommendations.

When the ABCD study was first thought of, the focus was on how substance use during the teen years affects future outcomes. But this is only one part of the picture. There are many other factors affecting teenage development, including physical and mental health, sports injuries, sleep habits, and time spent on screens.

The study started looking at a group of children at ages 9 or 10, with the aim to begin tracking data before they start using substances. Researchers then follow them through the period of time when they are most likely to do so. The children involved are currently 14 or 15 years old.

In 2015, five different subgroups from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) joined together to work on the study. They include the National Institute on Child Health and Development (NICHD), the National Institute on Mental Health (NIMH), the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), and the Office of Behavioral and Social Science (OBSSR).

What Are the Goals of the ABCD Study?

The ABCD study aims to identify how to best support children's health and brain development through the teenage years. This will help create policies, programs, and recommendations that promote the best possible outcomes for teens and young adults.

"Our study charts brain development throughout the landscape of adolescence," says Elizabeth Hoffman, PhD, the senior scientific program manager of the ABCD Project. "We start at the onset of adolescence, to see how diverse experiences can influence adolescent health longitudinally."

One main goal of the ABCD study is to create baseline standards for normal development. Knowing what milestones or changes to expect will help those invested in adolescents' lives understand the needs of the children they support. "We are aiming to get a comprehensive assessment of a variety of things, such as mental health, neurocognition, family and growing up factors, impulse control, current substance use, hormones, and environmental exposures," says Dr. Hoffman.

Why Is the ABCD Study Important?

The brain undergoes major structural and functional changes during adolescence. Teens start to build their sense of independence. This is a normal and positive change, but it's not without difficulties. Young people have a strong desire to make their own decisions, but they aren't necessarily fully equipped to do so.

As children develop their sense of identity, they often experiment and take risks, such as trying drugs and alcohol. Right when they begin to experiment with these substances, their brain is most vulnerable to their effects. That is why it's so important for those invested in children's developmental outcomes to understand more about how things like substance use, sleep patterns, sports injuries, and more impact health and development.

Following the same children as they grow and develop over a long span of time helps researchers track how very specific factors impact developmental outcomes. "This is really the crux of the study," notes Dr. Hoffman. "A lot of research historically had been looking at a single time point. If you have different participants over different time points, it’s not possible to track development over time."

How Do Researchers Use Data From the ABCD Study?

Researchers often use data from the ABCD study to help them conduct their own studies. They may ask questions of parents or kids involved in the study and then integrate the ABCD data into their own investigations.

One example of this is a study about the long-term effects of pot use while pregnant on children. In it, the researchers asked the birth parents of children involved in the ABCD study whether they used marijuana while they were pregnant. They then compared those responses to data the ABCD study found on mental health.

The researchers were able to conclude that there is an association between using pot while pregnant and mental health issues later in childhood. "We saw that children whose mothers supported using cannabis while pregnant had elevated rates of mental health symptoms, like aggression, ADHD, conduct disorder, and even psychotic-like symptoms," says researcher David Baranger, PhD. "We also saw that they continued to be elevated as the kids got older."

How Educators Can Use ABCD Data

Schools and educators can use the data from the ABCD study to help form policies and programs on many issues. "This data can be used to answer questions on gaps in achievement, how substance use affects learning, the benefits of extracurricular activities, and how traumatic brain injuries from playing sports may affect educational growth," notes Dr. Hoffman. "The findings in these areas can, in turn, help inform educational policies on school curricula, athletic programs, after-school programming, and substance use prevention and education."

Along with substance use, sports injuries, and after-school activities, the study is also investigating sleep, attention, and physical activity. Policies such as later start times for high school or requirements for head protection during contact sports may be shaped based on data from the study.

In addition, databases are linked with primary ABCD study data to provide information that may be useful for educators. This includes data on poverty, pollution, school, and policy.

What Families Can Learn From ABCD Data

Parents make decisions every day that profoundly affect their children's lives. It's up to you to decide whether to enforce screen time limits or a curfew on school nights. You have a say about which sports and activities your child participates in and whether to medicate them if they struggle with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). The ABCD study is looking into how all of these experiences shape children's futures. The data and conclusions can help you make the best decisions for your kids.

What This Means for You

Adolescence is a pivotal time in your child's life, for many reasons. They are crossing the bridge from childhood to adulthood, and that means they are becoming for independent. There are many things that your child needs to learn as they mature. The ABCD study is currently gathering data that will not only help you make the best decisions to support your developing teen over the long term but also help researchers and educators.

8 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. The Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development Study. About the study.

  3. Konrad K, Firk C, Uhlhaas PJ. Brain development during adolescenceDeutsches Ärzteblatt international. 2013;110(25):425-31. doi:10.3238/arztebl.2013.0425

  4. Lisdahl KM, Sher KJ, Conway KP, et al. Adolescent brain cognitive development (Abcd) study: Overview of substance use assessment methodsDevelopmental Cognitive Neuroscience. 2018;(32):80-96. doi:10.1016/j.dcn.2018.02.007

  5. Baranger DAA, Paul SE, Colbert SMC, et al. Association of mental health burden with prenatal cannabis exposure from childhood to early adolescence: longitudinal findings from the adolescent brain cognitive development (Abcd) study. JAMA Pediatr. 2022. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2022.3191

  6. The Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development Study. Educators: Significant of the ABCD Study.

  7. Fan, Chun Chieh, et al. Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) Study Linked External Data (LED): Protocol and Practices for Geocoding and Assignment of Environmental Data. Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience. 2021. doi:10.1016/j.dcn.2021.101030.

  8. The Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development Study. Families: Significance of the ABCD Study.

By Elisa Cinelli
Elisa is a well-known parenting writer who is passionate about providing research-based content to help parents make the best decisions for their families. She has written for well-known sites including POPSUGAR and Scary Mommy, among others.