The University of Rochester is participating in what is described as the largest long-term study to date of the developing brains of children and young adults.
Scientists from URMC and 20 other research sites across the nation will ask 9 and 10-year-old children and their parents to complete surveys and perform games and puzzles, and then every two years the children will undergo an MRI brain scan.
John Foxe, Ph.D, director of the Del Monte Neuroscience Institute and principal investigator of the ten year URMC study, said there are a lot of opinions about how factors such as screen time, sleep, and nutrition affect developing brains, but until now, there hasn't been a study large enough to produce statistically reliable answers.
"There's at least a likelihood or a probability that one of the children that we're enrolling into the study in Rochester today or one of the other sites could ultimately end up, 15 or 20 years from now, being the scientist who uses the data to make a major discovery about brain development," he said.
The study will seek to better understand how external experiences affect the developing brain, academic achievement, social development, behavior, and overall health.
"Statistically we'll have such a broad sample that we'll be able to say much more definitively what the impacts of things like of things like screen time are,” Foxe said. “The time that a child spends parked in front of a screen, what does that really mean for brain development? Are there brain changes that we can see that will tip us off that something may not be going well, that a child is heading toward perhaps a major neurological disorder or a substance abuse disorder? But also, are there changes in the brain that we can see that say this child is headed for excellence and academic achievement?"
Until now, Foxe said, most research in this area has come from relatively short-term studies involving 20 or 30 subjects. Advances in technology are another edge for researchers today. URMC recently acquired a state-of-the-art MRI scanner that will be used for the project.
URMC, with the help of local public and parochial schools, will be recruiting up to 300 nine and ten-year- olds for the research study. "By going through the school systems, we get the broadest possible sample of children,” Foxe said. “It means that we have children from every ethnic and racial background in the right proportions so this study is representative."
The project, he noted, is part of the open science movement and ongoing findings will be released to the public and scientists across the globe.