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Why the brain is the new frontier

February 6, 2018
by Jill Sederstrom
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A study on teen development could provide new insights into the role substance use plays in developmental outcomes. The National Institute of Health-supported study, which will use advanced brain imaging to track nine- to 10 year-old children from childhood through early adulthood, will also study the onset and progression of mental disorders.

“More brain imaging studies are really important, especially as it relates to lifestyle changes and how the brain develops over time,” says Daniel Amen, MD, a double board-certified psychiatrist and founder of Amen Clinics.

The goal of what is being called the “ABCD study” is to learn more about how experiences in adolescence, such as substance use, screen time, sleep or participation in sports, impact brain development and ultimately factor into social, behavioral and health outcomes.

Researchers hope to recruit 10,000 healthy children ages nine or 10 to participate in the study.

“When I was growing up, space was the new frontier. And now clearly it’s the space between your ears that is the new frontier,” Amen says. “All of us should embrace it.”

Synaptic connections

According to Amen, brain development research has shown that from the age of nine to about 25 years old the brain undergoes two well-known processes. The first, known as pruning, is the process where the brain gets rid of synaptic connections it doesn’t use. The second process, known as myelination, coats the axon of the neuron in a fatty substance called myelin that protects the neuron and helps the brain work more efficiently.

“Anything that disrupts that process is bad for the brain,” Amen says, who has been studying brain imaging at his own centers since 1991.

Researchers hope that by tracking children over time, they'll be able learn more about the role that environmental and social factors play in development, in addition to genetics. The findings could help answer some long standing questions about whether changes occur to the brain because of activities like substance use or whether there are developmental differences in the brain that may predispose a person to use.

The study could give behavioral healthcare practitioners more insight into the onset and progression of mental health disorders and has the potential to change how some of these disorders are diagnosed and treated.

Amen has long been an advocate of using brain imaging and believes it can give mental health professionals a more comprehensive view of a patient. 

“It's just unconscionable to me where we give people the diagnosis of schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, ADHD or major depression without any biological data,” he says. “For a long time, my goal has been to change how psychiatric medicine is practiced by adding brain imaging so you at least have a clue of the underlying physiology before you go about changing it.”

He believes the latest ABCD study will just be one more piece of evidence that supports the importance of using such brain imaging tools. In addition to substance abuse and mental health, the study will also examine the role daily activities and other factors play in brain development.


The Summits for Clinical Excellence bring together thought leaders on cutting-edge topics in multi-day national and regional conferences. Summits on mindfulness, trauma, process addiction, and shame appeal particularly to private practice behavioral healthcare professionals. Other Summits address the national opioid crisis from a regional perspective and engage a diverse group of stakeholders.

October 17-20, 2018 Atlanta - Brain Matters: Shame, Trauma, and Addiction