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In late September, 2009, the UCSD Center for Human Development (CHD) received the news that a grant of over $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). The study named PING (Pediatric Imaging, Neurocognition, and Genetics) represented one of NIDA’s Signature Projects. PING involved 10 sites throughout the country and 5 project leaders. UCSD Professors Terry Jernigan and Anders Dale were two of the project leaders, and Professors Linda Chang and Thomas Ernst of the University of Hawaii, as well as Scripps Genomics’ Sarah Murray led other components of the project. Other sites included UCLA, UC Davis, Kennedy Krieger Institute/Johns Hopkins, Sacker Institute/Cornell University, University of Massachusetts, Massachusetts General Hospital/Harvard, and Yale.

The project was coordinated within UCSD’s CHD, and the advanced neuroimaging work of the project was based in UCSD’s MultiModal Imaging Laboratory and directed by Anders Dale, a Professor of Radiology and Neurosciences and CHD affiliate. This project serves as a testament to the growing importance of truly interdisciplinary research that spans departments and divisions of the University; investigators in 6 different UCSD departments participated in PING.

The PING study had unique aims and unprecedented scope. The goal was to contribute to our understanding of 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 studied 1400 children between the ages of 3 and 20 years. This made 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 was 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 ongoing 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, addictions, or other behavioral problems. It is hoped that the data from PING 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 was to initiate a novel database – one that would eventually reveal a map depicting the genomic landscape of the developing human brain – as a resource to the scientific community. Although very large-scale data resources are necessary to complete this map, as these resources accumulate investigators interested in the effects of a particular gene will be able to search 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 brain development at some point during childhood. The investigators gathered data on many aspects of human brain architecture, including the patterns of connection between brain regions, using different types of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

Data Sharing

Data collection for the study is now complete and the PING Data Resource is available to the scientific community via the NIMH Data Archive (NDA). If you would like access to PING data, please go to the NDA site, create an account, and file the data use certificate. The policy governing PING data use and the Data Use Certification are managed by NDA. If you are working with PING data that was acquired prior to the PING Data Resource moving to NDA, you will need to apply for access at the NIMH Data Archive and file a new data use certificate. Please contact the NDA Help Desk with any questions regarding your account, data access, or data use.