UC San Diego SearchMenu


In late September, 2009, the UCSD Center for Human Development (CHD) received the news that a grant of nearly $9 million, provided through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), had been awarded to CHD researchers by the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) with co-funding from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute on Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) within the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). The new study, which is called PING, for Pediatric Imaging, Neurocognition, and Genetics, represents one of NIDA’s Signature Projects. PING involves 10 sites throughout the country and there are 5 project leaders. UCSD Professors Terry Jernigan and Anders Dale are two of the project leaders, and Professors Linda Chang and Thomas Ernst of the University of Hawaii, as well as Scripps Genomics’ Sarah Murray lead other components of the project. Other sites are UCLA, UC Davis, Kennedy Krieger Institute/Johns Hopkins, Sacker Institute/Cornell University, University of Massachusetts, Massachusetts General Hospital/Harvard, Yale.

The project will be coordinated within UCSD’s CHD and the advanced neuroimaging work of the project will be based in UCSD’s MultiModal Imaging Laboratory, and directed by Anders Dale, a Professor of Radiology and Neurosciences and a CHD affiliate. The project is a testament to the growing importance of truly interdisciplinary research that spans departments and divisions of the University; investigators in 7 different UCSD departments are expected to participate.

This exciting new study has unique aims and unprecedented scope. The goal is to understand the genetic basis of individual differences in brain structure and connectivity, cognition, and personality. Since it is known that structural and functional connectivity in the brain undergoes continuous remodeling during childhood, the investigators will study 1400 children between the ages of 3 and 20 years. This will make it possible to search for links between genetic variation and developing patterns of brain connectivity, and to examine the implications for emerging personality and mental abilities.

One might say that PING is a study of the genetic and neural factors that contribute to individuality. Understanding why we have different personalities and mental qualities is critically important for solving many problems that affect children. The impact of the study is likely to be very broad - it will provide information that could help to enhance educational outcomes, and to identify targets for early interventions that could prevent negative developmental outcomes in children.

Unfortunately, development in some individuals is accompanied by the onset of mental disorders, or addictions and other behavioral problems. It is hoped that the study will shed light on why certain genetic variants can increase this risk. This could lead to earlier detection of incipient disorders, and point to new ways of preventing or minimizing their impact.

The major aim of the project is to create a database – essentially a map depicting the genomic landscape of the developing human brain – as a resource to the scientific community. Investigators interested in the effects of a particular gene will be able to search the database for any brain areas or connections between areas that differ as a function of variation in a particular gene, and also to determine if the genes appear to affect the course of braindevelopment at some point during childhood. The investigators plan to gather data on many aspects of human brain architecture, including the patterns of connection between brain regions, using different types of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).