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U Launches Large-Scale Study to Understand How Teens' Experiences Impact the Brain


Researchers Will Track 1,000 Utah Adolescents to Investigate How Social Media, Sleep Habits, Concussions, Extracurricular Activities Affect Health and Well-Being

Generation Z can't remember a time without smart phones and social media. The oldest are just entering their preteen years but still very little is understood about how electronics impact the adolescent brain, which goes through incredible changes during this time of life.

To find out, the University of Utah is taking part in a nationwide, landmark study designed to address questions about how extensive exposure to iPhones and other typical teen experiences – including lack of sleep and head injuries from sports – affect their social, emotional, intellectual and physical health and well-being

With $11 million in funding from the National Institutes of Health, investigators at the U plan to follow 1,000 children beginning at ages 9-10 through adolescence and into early adulthood. Recruitment is being carried out over a two-year period in partnership with area schools.

The U was selected as one of 19 study sites from across the nation based on its strong research in brain imaging and in advancing an understanding of the teen brain. In what will be the largest investigation of its kind in the U.S., the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) Study) will track more than 10,000 children total.

Questions to be addressed include:

  • How does screen time affect social and brain development?
  • Can football injuries cause brain damage?
  • How do sleep patterns affect academic achievement?
  • Does drinking coffee or energy drinks have negative effects on children?
  • Are there extracurricular activities or other experiences that help children do better in school and be happier in life?
Deborah Yurgelun-Todd
Deborah Yurgelun-Todd, Ph.D.

"This study seeks to fill in these gaps in knowledge to help children and adolescents grow into healthy, well-adjusted adults," says Deborah Yurgelun-Todd, Ph.D., primary investigator of the study and professor of psychiatry at the University of Utah School of Medicine.

The researchers will conduct advanced brain imaging, interviews, and behavioral testing to determine how a child's experiences interact with their changing biology to affect brain development and—ultimately—social, behavioral, academic, health and other outcomes.

Adolescence is frequently a time when kids are immersed in social pressures and take new risks. Understanding relationships between how a person's biology and their experiences predispose them to neurodevelopmental concerns such as depression or substance abuse may help scientists learn how to predict such problems so they can be treated or reversed. This knowledge may also reveal ways to nurture successful and resilient young adults.

"Utah is one of the healthiest states in the nation," says Perry Renshaw, M.D., Ph.D., co-investigator and professor of psychiatry at the University of Utah, referring to high rates in sports participation and relatively low rate of alcohol use. "What we learn about our adolescents here may provide lessons for others."

Families that volunteer in the study will be part of groundbreaking research that promises to inform child development innovations, research priorities, more effective public health interventions, and science-based policy decisions.

"It is a tremendous opportunity to improve the health and success of our youth," says Yurgelun-Todd.

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