How does drinking alcohol affect the developing brains of adolescents? What is the impact of social, familial and biological factors on brain development during the pre-teen and teen years? Amid this period of great intellectual and emotional growth, how do culture and environment influence neurodevelopment and long-term outcomes?
University of Florida researchers are setting out to tackle these questions and more as part of a landmark National Institutes of Health study called ABCD — the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development study. UF is one of 19 sites across the country that will follow some 10,000 children from ages 9-10 for 10 years, using advanced neuroimaging to examine brain structure and function, looking at academic achievement, cognitive skills and mental health and tracking use of alcohol, marijuana and other drugs.
With the $3.76 million NIH grant, UF is in the early phases of what will be the largest long-term U.S. study of brain development and child health. UF will recruit about 400 children over the next two years, while partner site University of Michigan will recruit another 575.
“This study is going to be the first of its kind,” says psychiatry Professor Sara Jo Nixon, co-director of the UF Center for Addiction Research and Education, which is part of the Evelyn F. and William L. McKnight Brain Institute. Nixon will serve as co-principal investigator with Linda B. Cottler, founding chair of the Department of Epidemiology.
“It will provide an amazing opportunity to examine brain development and developmental trajectories from adolescence to early adulthood,” Nixon says.
The study is among a broad range of investigations being pursued by the Center for Addiction Research and Education, whose faculty has grown from 10 members in 2006 to 28 today. That surge reflects a new era for the field of addiction medicine, which recently acquired recognition as a dedicated medical specialty.
Investigations span the UF campus, involving multiple colleges and departments, and focus on diverse topics from how college drinking affects stimulant use to how cocaine affects dopamine levels.
Jane Aldrich, a professor of medicinal chemistry, says the center is one of the things that drew her to UF from the University of Kansas. A leading researcher in opiates, Aldrich was attracted to the potential synergy of interactions with faculty in pharmacology, physiology, pain management and related fields.
Aldrich’s lab predominantly makes new compounds, focusing on those that act at opiate receptors, with the goals of both treating addiction and treating pain with less potential for abuse and other serious side effects compared with current drugs.
High-profile deaths like that of Prince have put the issue of opioid misuse and abuse in the national spotlight, and even as treatment options expand, the need continues to grow. An analysis of health-care claims for treatment of opioid dependence showed a 3,000 percent increase from 2007 to 2014, according to UF psychologist Lisa J. Merlo and psychiatrist William Greene.
The current focus in Aldrich’s lab is how to prevent stress-induced relapse to drug use.
“If you ever knew someone who smoked and quit, and then something stressful happens in life — they lose a job, break up with a girlfriend, what happens? They go back to smoking in many cases,” Aldrich says. “The same happens for other addictive substances as well.”
Her lab is testing compounds that block “kappa” receptors in the brain — receptors that cause dysphoria, or a state of unease and dissatisfaction.
“There is a lot of evidence that activation of these kappa receptors may be involved in a number of stress responses, so if you can block that activation, you would block this miserable feeling and drug-seeking behavior,” Aldrich says.
At UF, ongoing addiction studies stretch from the chemistry lab to human clinical trials (such as a soon-to-launch phase 2 trial for a novel medication for smoking cessation), from the effects of “bath salt” drugs to apps that could help people monitor their own drinking.
Genetics are a key focus as well.
Just as certain cardiovascular medications work in some and not in others, researchers are beginning to understand there are genotypes in other systems that may make someone more or less responsive to particular drugs.
“There is no one-size-fits-all,” Nixon says.