The traditional neurological explanation for why teens take more risks could be wrong, according to new research from a University of Pittsburgh neuroscientist.
The adolescent tendency to engage in high-risk behaviors is often attributed to an underdeveloped prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for decision-making, planning and reasoning. That attribution, said Beatriz Luna, Staunton Professor of Psychiatry and Pediatrics at the Pitt School of Medicine, is a myth that needs to be dispelled. Ms. Luna presented her work Saturday at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in San Jose, Calif.
In fact, the prefrontal cortex in teens is not that different from that of an adult, though refinement of it occurs throughout adolescence. For teens, it is like a new car. They have all the necessary equipment, but it takes some time before they are able to use it maturely, said Ms. Luna, who obtained her Ph.D. in developmental psychology from Pitt.
However, the limbic system, one of the parts of the brain that controls emotion, motivation and behavior that is tied to survival, becomes hyperactive during adolescence. The rapidly changing motivation center can overrule reasoning that occurs in the prefrontal cortex, resulting in a teenager’s tendency to seek instant gratification.
Ms. Luna’s team also found that the basic architecture of different networks in the brain is completed before adolescence sets in, but the way those networks talk to each other is honed during the teenage years. It is a time when the brain tries out different systems of communication among networks (such as visual and auditory), eventually figuring out what works best and using the most effective systems into adulthood. The refinement is important in developing adult behaviors.
The team came to its conclusions by monitoring hundreds of volunteers’ brain activity with an MRI while instructing them to not look at a small light that would appear on a screen in front of them. The test allowed them to measure how often people of various ages were able to overcome their impulses to look at the light, as well as what sections of the brain were engaged while they did so.
Ms. Luna’s work was presented a session titled “From Tomb to Womb,” featuring four researchers from across the country presening research on neuroimaging across different age groups.
Understanding how the brain changes during adolescence could be important to treating psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia or anorexia, which often emerge during puberty, Ms. Luna said.
She emphasized that the teen brain is not an injured or limited adult brain. Rather, she said, it is the most perfect brain for the adolescent period. Across animal species and human cultures, adolescents engage in sensation-seeking and risky behavior, allowing them to refine their thinking and prepare to gain independence.
“Adolescence is not a disease,” she said.
Laura Byko: firstname.lastname@example.org