In 2015, the Child Mind Institute launched the Healthy Brain Network to pursue a bold goal: to seek out biological markers of mental health disorders in the developing brain. Other fields of medicine have objective tests to diagnose disease, but psychologists and psychiatrists must rely on observation, along with patient and family reports, to identify and treat mental health disorders.

One in five children struggles with a mental health or learning disorder, and objective tests will fundamentally change the way clinicians evaluate these children and design and assess treatment plans. The need for that change inspired the Healthy Brain Network.

Over the next five years, the Healthy Brain Network will provide free diagnostic mental health consultations and treatment recommendations to 10,000 children and adolescents in New York City, all the while collecting brain scans and other data to advance our understanding of the biology of mental illness.

“The scope of this study is unprecedented because the scale of the problem is unprecedented,” says Harold Koplewicz, MD, president of the Child Mind Institute. “There are 17 million children in this country who have or have had a psychiatric illness — that’s more than the number of children suffering with cancer, AIDS and diabetes combined. We feel a tremendous sense of urgency to advance the science of the developing brain to help these children.”

The Healthy Brain Network’s community-based research center on Staten Island has begun collecting what will be the largest-ever database on the developing brain. Plans are in motion to open additional research centers in Brooklyn and other boroughs in the coming years to enable the study to reach its ambitious goals. The study will also test new research paradigms while involving the community in a partnership for children’s mental health. In addition to the state-of-the-art research center, a mobile MRI lab and research vehicle enables staff to do evaluations and collect data in neighborhoods across the city.

Sharing data with researchers through open science

Freely sharing its data is fundamental to the design of the study. Dr. Cameron Craddock, director of imaging at the Child Mind Institute’s Center for the Developing Brain, is leading key aspects of the data collection and sharing process. “We are excited about what the project is doing for children and families, but also what it could mean for the study of children’s mental health on a grand scale because of how we’ll share our data,” he says.

Unlike other research efforts where data is held until papers are published, or longer, the Healthy Brain Network will share its results with researchers around the world using what’s called “open science.” In addition, the mobile units will take cutting-edge technologies out of the lab and into communities to facilitate data collection and to address the needs of children who may otherwise not have access to care.

Studies such as the Healthy Brain Network that use large data sets and open science are helping drive a fundamental shift in how research is conducted in developmental neuroscience. “These methods are the only way we can answer the mental health questions we want to ask,” says Dr. Craddock. “We can look at similarities and differences between disorders, and find answers to some fundamental questions about brain development.”

With New York’s diverse population and data shared with researchers around the globe, the hope is that these comparisons will uncover the biological factors contributing to mental health and learning disorders in young people, which may one day lead to new treatments, new diagnostic tools and new approaches to prevention.

But first, the data needs to be collected. “10,000 in 5 years — that’s pretty aggressive,” says Dr. Craddock. A recent visit showed the Staten Island research center humming with activity, and the work well underway.

Going mobile

As the mobile collection efforts gain momentum, lessons from the project should have an impact far and wide in experimental neuroscience. The work starts with demonstrating the dependability of the mobile scanner, a newer tool in a time when most neuroimaging studies are conducted at university medical centers. “There’s a lot of discussion in the field about collecting data using mobile labs,” Dr. Craddock explains. “We’re seeing terrific results so far, and the implications for discovery are very exciting.”

The most exciting outcome of the study may be its potential to transform the lives of children who struggle with mental health or learning disorders every day.

“Based on our research and the children we see, we know that mental health and learning disorders are real, common and treatable,” says Dr. Koplewicz. “But we must do more — too few children have access to care and too many lives are held back by mental illness. We believe that accelerating the rate of discovery is essential to helping our children reach their full potential, and to find meaning and joy in their lives.”

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