Study to investigate teenage brain development

A new research project aims to shed light on what happens to the brain as young people mature, as part of a £5.4 million project funded by the Wellcome Trust.

Despite adolescence being a high-risk time for developing major psychiatric and drug dependence disorders, very little is known about the teenage brain. The U-Change study, which was profiled last night on BBC News, will use brain scans, questionnaires and genetic testing on 300 people between the ages of 14 and 24 to improve our understanding of how different parts of the brain develop.

Professor Ed Bullmore, lead researcher on the project from the University of Cambridge, said: "The teenage brain struggles with controlling impulsive and emotional behaviour – as most parents of an adolescent can attest. Our research will hopefully shed light on what happens to their brains as they mature.

"It seems very likely that the major cognitive, emotional and behavioural changes of adolescence will turn out to be related to the alterations that occur in brain networks during this period."

The study will use magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to examine normal youth brain development by taking scans over a period of several years. It will be the first study of its kind to use both conventional MRI and fMRI (a type of brain scan that monitors blood flow as a representation of brain activity) to look at changes in brain structure.

The volunteers will be asked to answer questionnaires to assess their social history and demographic group, mental wellbeing, and home environment, and they will undergo tests to assess their impulsive and risk-taking behaviour. In order to examine what role genetics might play in brain development, the scientists will also collect saliva and/or blood samples.

The study, which is sponsored by the University of Cambridge and the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough NHS Foundation Trust (CPFT), may eventually enable doctors to identify individuals at high risk of developing a psychiatric or drug dependence disorder and to improve intervention. In addition, by refining our understanding of how these disorders develop, it has the potential to advance treatments for these young people.

The U-Change study is part of a larger programme called the Neuroscience in Psychiatry Network (NSPN), which has been funded by a £5.4 million Strategic Award from the Wellcome Trust to the University of Cambridge and University College London. Future studies as part of the NSPN programme will build on research from the U-Change study on normal brain and mind development but will focus more on how psychiatric disorders such as depression, conduct disorder and psychosis arise.

Dr John Williams, Head of Neuroscience and Mental Health at the Wellcome Trust, said: "We need to understand what happens in the brain as part of normal development before we can start to work out what goes wrong in psychiatric disorders. This research will be key to understanding how these disorders develop and, we hope, will help to find better treatments."