Ongoing growth in adolescent brain
Posted on Aug 16, 2012 in News
Adolescence is defined as the transitional stage of physical and psychological human development generally occurring between puberty and legal adulthood. However, determining exactly when the adolescent brain emotionally and intellectually becomes an adult brain is extremely difficult to pinpoint. Recently, studies show that important changes in the adolescent brain anatomy actually take place farther in development than previously thought.
It is often evident that adolescents do not portray the same type of control over their actions as mature adults. Although there is much complexity in determining why this is, Dr. Laurence Steinberg, a professor of psychology at Temple University, provides one clue. He explains that functional MRIs show that reward centers in the adolescent brain are more active than the reward centers in either children or adult brains.
Steinberg elaborates, “Heightened sensitivity to anticipated rewards motivates adolescents to engage in risky acts, such as unprotected sex, fast driving or drugs when the potential for pleasure is high. This hypersensitivity to reward is particularly pronounced when they’re with their friends.” In a sense, teens are just more wired to seek quick pleasure, regardless of the risk factor involved.
In addition, during the period of adolescence, many other specific structural changes are evident in the brain that may affect an adolescent’s ability to make decisions. Research thus supports the idea that adolescents mature intellectually before maturing socially or emotionally. This explains why teenagers that are incredibly smart in some aspects do surprisingly “dumb things.”
Policy makers and high courts take into account the different levels of emotional maturation that comes with age, as evident by the differences in punishments for crimes by minors versus adults.
The new studies showing that changes in the adolescent brain take place farther in development than previously thought could impact how policymakers and the high courts are treating teenagers. While an individual in the United States is legally termed an adult at the age of 18, the discrepancy between when an adolescent matures intellectually and when he/she matures socially or emotionally affects policy makers’ decisions in what ages to dictate what laws. Steinberg explains, “From a neuroscientific standpoint, it therefore makes perfect sense to have a lower age for autonomous medical decision-making than for eligibility for capital punishment, because certain brain systems mature earlier than others.”
Figuring out how exactly such research should be interpreted and applied by policy makers requires communication between the policy makers and the scientists/behavioral researchers studying the adolescent brain. Evidence may be used to argue in favor of restricting adolescents’ rights or may be used to advocate for policies that protect adolescents from harm. Either way, as Steinberg states, “scientists should welcome the opportunity to inform policy and legal discussions with the best available empirical evidence.”