July 4, 2014

By Nora Volkow (Director, NIDA), George Koob (Director, NIAAA), Alan Guttmacher (Director, NICHD), and Bob Croyle (Director, Division of Cancer Control and Population Sciences, NCI)

Photo of a group of teens

As we wrote in early May, the time is ripe for a large prospective cohort study that will comprehensively assess the effects of adolescent substance use on the developing brain. The proposed study will recruit a large sample of children prior to substance use initiation (around age 10) and follow them for a decade, throughout adolescence and into young adulthood, deploying a range of neuroimaging, behavioral, and other assessment tools to monitor individual trajectories of brain development and related outcomes. The necessary technology is now available, and given rapidly shifting policies and attitudes around substance use in our society, the need for answers is more and more pressing.

Planning has begun. An expert panel workshop convened in late May to start the process of developing recommendations for optimal large-scale project design and to discuss measures for assessing developmental effects of exposure to nicotine, alcohol, marijuana, and other drugs. A summary of that workshop is now available. In addition, we have just issued a formal request for information (RFI) to solicit advice for this project from the extramural research community and other stakeholders.  We invite you to weigh in on all aspects of the study—including optimal sample size and sampling strategies, approaches for replication of findings, and data-sharing arrangements that would balance Principal Investigators’ incentives with the need to keep the data open-access.

We believe that this study will be a major boon to investigators across a wide range of substance abuse and child development fields—not just those directly studying adolescent substance use and brain development.  In the process of gathering data to answer the primary research questions, the envisioned study will generate a very rich data set on normative brain development, diverse patterns of substance use, and on the full range of behaviors and symptoms of mental disorders. Thus, two ancillary benefits of this study include an infrastructure to further a wide range of research and the generation of extensive and comprehensive data for secondary analyses, including biospecimen collection for genetic and epigenetic analyses. It is even possible that sufficient information will be generated that new data-analytic methods will ultimately emerge.  Akin to other large, resource-intensive scientific projects, such as the Human Genome Project, the yield will far exceed the specific planned outcome, and thus the resources put into it will truly be an investment, in every possible sense.

We are extremely excited about the National Longitudinal Study of Neurodevelopmental Consequences of Substance Use, not only because it will clarify myriad unknowns about the effects of substance use on adolescent development and help answer the many questions currently being asked by health providers, policymakers, and the public, but also because it will contribute to answering new questions that researchers have not even begun to ask.

Responses to the RFI will be accepted until August 31, 2014. In addition, the NIH intends to host an open satellite event/meeting about this project at the Society for Neuroscience Annual Meeting in Washington DC, in November 2014. We anticipate that a Funding Opportunity Announcement (FOA) for the project will be issued jointly in 2015 by our institutes (the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, the National Cancer Institute, and the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development).

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