Gaya Dowling, Ph.D., will discuss factors that influence the adolescent brain when she presents the keynote speech at the AAP Presidential Plenary April 28 during the Pediatric Academic Societies (PAS) meeting in Baltimore.
Dr. Dowling, a researcher and neurobiologist, is the director of the federal Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) study (https://abcdstudy.org), which is following 11,874 individuals from ages 9-10 years to 19-20 years.
The study is expected to yield vast amounts of information on the adolescent brain over the next decade. In her address, Dr. Dowling will discuss some of the questions she expects to be answered through the study, which will discern both risk and protective factors that influence adolescent health and behavior.
“We’re going to have a lot of information about these kids … so we’ll be able to look at, tease out, how these factors may influence development,” she said.
Dr. Dowling said she is most excited about the fact that there will be questions researchers haven’t even thought of, “outcomes from the study that we didn’t even foresee.”
Ten National Institutes of Health (NIH) institutes and centers as well as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention support the landmark study through a cooperative agreement. Each agency has its own interests (mental health, concussions, substance use, etc.). Dr. Dowling, who has worked at four NIH institutes in her 19 years there, is currently at the National Institute of Drug Abuse.
Several features of the ABCD study make it a unique opportunity to learn about adolescent development and the adolescent brain, Dr. Dowling noted, including the large, diverse cohort followed over an extended time, the wide-ranging information being collected and the fact that the teens are being studied before they might begin using substances or demonstrating other behaviors.
Most studies on the impact of substance use on adolescents have looked at users and nonusers. “But then you don’t know if those users are fundamentally different than the nonusers,” she said. “With a study like this, we can actually look within a person to see how their trajectory may have changed.”
The baseline data also are being made available to the scientific community, which she expects researchers at the PAS meeting will appreciate.
“What we really hope this study can do, in addition to all the scientific findings that are interesting to all of us, is to have … findings that can be translated into useful information for pediatricians, for policymakers, for educators,” Dr. Dowling said. “That’s really the ultimate goal for ABCD. By speaking to this audience, not only am I going to get the researchers in the room to want to dive into the data to answer their own questions, but also get the clinicians in the room excited about what’s going to come.”