SALT LAKE CITY — The University of Utah is joining 18 other research centers around the country in what will be the largest study ever of brain development and child health in the U.S.
"This is our way of figuring out how to optimally help kids' brains develop," said Erin McGlade, a research assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Utah Brain Institute and a co-investigator on the study. "If we can better understand what happens when brain development goes well, we can really help kids capitalize on that. Our goal is always to have healthy, happy kids."
The U. is one of 19 sites across the nation chosen by the National Institutes of Health to follow 10,000 children for 10 years.
Researchers will track how various habits like screen time, exercise, sleep and even coffee and energy drink consumption affect teens' well-being and brain development.
Investigators will also look at socioeconomic factors like family life, academic achievement and geography.
The U. will be responsible for tracking 1,000 youngsters and will receive $11 million over 10 years for the study, according to McGlade, who said the teens will be asked to undergo an MRI and answer a questionnaire every year and follow-up on the phone every six months.
She said robust research on the effects of sleep, screen time and other habits on the teen brain health is limited because such studies are expensive and time-consuming.
"We have a lot of really good cross-sectional studies that only look at 9-year-olds or 20-year-olds or 13-year-olds, but we don't really have good studies that look at the same kids throughout the 10 years," McGlade said.
Dr. Nathan Bexfield, a pediatrician with University of Utah Health Care who is not involved in the study, said he is looking forward to learning more about how the brain changes during the "very significant" adolescent years.
"The brain is basically determining how it's going to function as an adult," Bexfield said. "How you think and establish things in your brain, how you wire your brain, your decision-making process and your education and things like that is what's going to stick for the rest of their lives."
One of the topics that the study will focus on is sleep patterns. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, insufficient sleep among high school students is common.
Local data appears to back that up: A survey of about 1,700 high school students in the Granite, Salt Lake, Canyons and Cache school districts found that just 24 percent reported getting eight hours or more sleep per night.
Nearly half of the students who responded — 48 percent — said they get six hours or less per night.
When it comes to television time, nearly 1 in 5 students said they watch three or more hours of television per day. And when asked about video or computer games, nearly 1 in 3 students said they play three or more hours a day, with 13 percent of students reporting playing five or more hours a day.
Bexfield said he recommends teens get at least eight to 10 hours of sleep per day — "and that's good sleep, not going to bed at 1 a.m. and waking up at noon," he said.
He said research also shows that exercise is correlated with less depression and that screen time is correlated with issues like obesity, depression, anxiety and poor school performance.
In fact, Utah Department of Health researchers found that teens who used video games or computers for three or more hours a day were about twice as likely to have seriously considered suicide in the past year compared with those with two or fewer hours of screen time, even after controlling for bullying and other factors.
Still, Bexfield and McGlade said scientists and doctors need more data to reinforce some of the practices that pediatricians advocate.
For example, scientists know that the brains of teens who experience sleep deprivation, have psychiatric disorders or use marijuana look different from the brains of those who don't, according to McGlade.
However, researchers don't always know whether their brains were different to begin with or changed because of their habits, she said.
"Our goal is to see when that difference starts to manifest and what might be kind of an optimum or middle period of intervention for that," McGlade said.
The National Institutes of Health may spend up to $300 million on the study.
Families with 9- and 10-year-old children who want to find out more can email [email protected] or call 801-213-2094 to talk to a researcher.
Email: [email protected]