Brain Map Will Help Identify Risk Factors for Mental Health Problems

Jun. 9, 2021

New findings from the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development Study (ABCD) provide researchers with a roadmap of brain activity that could be used to identify cognitive processing problems that could ultimately contribute to mental and physical health problems later in life.

“This study pushes us closer to the point where we can identify and ultimately prevent mental health problems later in life by identifying risk early,” said John Foxe, Ph.D., director of the University of Rochester Del Monte Institute for Neuroscience and co-author of the study, which appears in the journal Nature Neuroscience.   “If we can identify these risks with a simple brain scan at a young age, then that gives us a long runway to intervene and potentially change outcomes.”

The ABCD study, which was launched in 2016, is the largest brain development study ever undertaken by the National Institutes of Health.  The study has enrolled almost 12,000 youths aged 9 to 10 and will follow them for 10 years.  The study will seek to better understand how children’s experiences impact brain maturation and other aspects of their lives, including academic achievement, social development, behavior, and overall health. The University of Rochester Medical Center (URMC) is one of 21 sites in the U.S. participating in the initiative and the local study is led by Foxe and Ed Freedman, Ph.D.

Brain development during adolescence is a critical period, characterized by cognitive and emotional maturation.  It is also during this time that mental health disorders can emerge, so a closer understanding of neurodevelopment and the risk factors that could lead to problems later in life is of critical interest.

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) technology, the researchers observed brain activation during a battery of three different tasks and identified how differences in the patterns of activity related to individual differences in these processes.  The findings from the new study demonstrate which brain regions are involved in a range of important psychological processes, including cognitive control, reward processing, working memory, and social and emotional function.

 “This study – likely the biggest task activation paper ever – shows the brain regions activated by each task, how well they capture individual differences, and will likely serve as a baseline for all the subsequent papers that will track the kids as they age,” says Hugh Garavan, Ph.D., professor of psychiatry at the University of Vermont and a senior author on the study.

These brain activation maps will improve researcher’s understanding of the psychological processes that put young people at higher risk for developing mental and physical health challenges and provide a means for more specifically identifying risk factors and points at which interventions could help improve outcomes.