Skip to main contentSkip to main content
You are the owner of this article.
You have permission to edit this article.

VTC Research Institute to study why teens take risks

The four-year research program will delve into such mysteries as drug abuse and sexual behavior.

  • 0

Researchers at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute will soon peer into the teenage mind, seeking to discern why some adolescents are such risk-takers.

As many as 150 teens are being recruited for the four-year study, to be conducted at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute.

Through the use of brain scans, questionnaires and mental exercises, the project will attempt to identify early predictors of substance abuse, teen sex and other risky behaviors.

“Adolescents tend to become more sensitive to high-reward stimuli — sex, drugs, rock ’n’ roll,” Brooks King-Casas, an assistant professor at the institute and a study leader, said in a written description of the project.

Along with co-leader Jungmeen Kim-Spoon, a Tech psychology professor, King-Casas will follow a group of 13- and 14-year-olds for four years, gathering information from both the teens and their parents or caregivers.

Their research will be funded by a $3.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health — one of the larger awards for the Roanoke-based research institute, which opened four years ago.

 The institute has garnered about $47 million in grants for various research projects so far, according to Executive Director Michael Friedlander. That does not include pending applications and new grants expected to start soon.

 Like many of the projects underway, the research on adolescent risk-taking will combine the scientific and medical expertise at Tech and Carilion in an effort to address real-life problems.

The leading causes of death and disease among adolescents in the United States involve decisions to engage in behaviors such as smoking, drinking, drug use and high-risk sexual practices.

Identifying the people most likely to do those things would go a long way toward preventing them in the future, King-Casas and Kim-Spoon said.

“The hope is this will put us in a better position to identify adolescents at risk, and understand how biology and behavior can be nudged with rational intervention strategies towards making healthy choices,” King-Casas wrote in an email.

To qualify as a research subject, there’s no requirement that a teenager be living on the edge.

Listen now and subscribe: Apple Podcasts | Google Podcasts | Spotify | RSS Feed | Omny Studio

“The researchers just want to recruit 13- and 14-year-olds, with the assumption that there will be a range of proclivities toward risky behavior among the 150 study subjects,” said Paula Byron, a spokeswoman for the research institute.

A key part of the project will be to examine the brain’s prefrontal regions, which help inhibit impulsive behavior but are still developing for most 13- to 17-year-olds.

MRI brain scans of each study subject will be taken during visits to either the Roanoke campus of the research institute or a site in Blacksburg.

After the first visit, the teens and their parents will return once a year for the next three years for follow-up sessions.

A battery of self-reporting measures and behavioral and lab tests will be used to track the teens’ brain development over the course of the study.

Those participating will receive compensation, between $75 and $105 per session, and a copy of a CD containing the teen’s brain scan.

The research team assembled for the study is one of about 24 at the institute, which is located in the same building as the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine in south Roanoke.

Much of the research at the institute has so far been focused on matters of the brain, such as depression, substance abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder, brain injuries and other ailments.

But more recently, a new initiative deals with cardiovascular research.

The Center for Heart and Regenerative Medicine will soon consist of four team leaders involved in individual, but related, cardiovascular studies.

Starting in July, John Chappell of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and James Smyth of Cedars Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles will join the research institute. Along with heart center Director Robert Gourdie and research group leader Steven Poelzing, they have more than $1.25 million in research funding.

“Heart disease is the nation’s number one killer,” Friedlander said in a recent announcement of the initiative. With four new research groups, he said, “we are poised to add to the institute’s successes in brain and behavioral research with new advances in heart health.”

More information on the heart, adolescent risk-taking and other projects at the institute can be found at

Contact Laurence Hammack at or 981-3239. Follow him on Twitter: @LaurenceHammack.

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Laurence Hammack covers environmental issues, including the Mountain Valley Pipeline, and business and enterprise stories. He has been a reporter for The Roanoke Times for more than three decades.

Related to this story

Most Popular

Listen now and subscribe: Apple Podcasts | Google Podcasts | Spotify | Stitcher | RSS Feed | Omny Studio

Get up-to-the-minute news sent straight to your device.


Breaking News

Sports Breaking News

News Alert