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Talking about cohorts, young people, data & science

A key study for the BrainWaves project is our Cohort Study. But what exactly is a cohort study and why is it important for BrainWaves and science? We asked researcher Ryan Parsons to tell us more.

Young people together in a 6th form common room

Ryan, can you explain what a cohort study is?

A cohort study is a type of research where we collect data repeatedly over a period of time from a certain group who share similar characteristics (in this case, young people). This type of study is useful to investigate how different areas of young people’s lives are related and how they might change over time. For example, we might ask young people about their quality of life and see if this changes over time, or we might investigate whether other aspects of young people’s lives (E.g., their social relationships) are related to changes in their quality of life. Or perhaps we might see whether an intervention could positively change this relationship.

Why are we doing it?

The primary objective of the BrainWaves cohort study is to recruit and retain a large sample of young people so that we can collect these types of data from them at multiple timepoints. We can then use this data to create a valuable database to use for future studies and interventions. With the resulting data, researchers will be equipped to provide insights into young people’s mental health and well-being using rich data collected across multiple timepoints and domains.

How are we doing it?

In order to collect this data, our core assessment strategy is to administer an annual participant questionnaire that includes the measurement of important self-reported socioeconomic exposures, cognitive mediators, and mental and physical health outcomes. This data will be augmented with a short teacher questionnaire and school-based administrative data.

Following initial baseline data collection, young people will be assessed annually over a period of at least 10 years. Additionally, it is anticipated that the study will be incremental to include digital assessments, bio sampling and linkage to health and educational data over time.  

Development of the baseline cohort questionnaire was a multistage process, guided by two workshops and the expertise of the research team. In addition, a Young Person’s Advisory Group (YPAG), a voluntary group of young people aged 16 – 19 years old, were consulted on the selection of measures, as well as other important aspects of the questionnaire (such as longitudinal follow-up and time management). This advisory group provided valuable input from a young person’s perspective, helping to shape the questionnaire presented to participants. Additionally, comments and suggestions were provided by a teacher panel and teacher workshops overseen by The Day.

So, what are the next steps?

We plan to use our current questionnaire for a soft launch of the cohort study in April 2024. Learnings from the soft launch will inform changes and improvements in preparation for the main launch of the cohort study scheduled for the final quarter of 2024.

The scientific value of BrainWaves is expected to increase over time as further data sets are collected and the long-term benefits of interventions are evaluated. We have exciting plans ahead in our quest to improve the mental health and well-being of young people, so watch this space!