The Adolescent Brain 🧠
Adolescence is a phase of maturation: it is a transitional period of physical and psychological human development between childhood and adulthood.
During the teenage years there is a phase of rapid brain development; neurons in the brain that are not used disappear, while those that are used stay stronger, a process called "pruning" that makes the brain more efficient.
The greatest changes in the brains volumetric areas which are responsible for self-control, judgment, emotions, and organisation; all start to develop in puberty.
Therefore, poor decision-making and emotional outbursts that can characterise teenage behaviour are explainable.
The brains reward system is often studied in adolescents.
During adolescence, this system experiences a peak in activity.
This involves a peak in the neurotransmitter Dopamine.
Dopamine-producing neurons in the ventral tegmental area (VTA) communicate with neurons in the nucleus accumbens in order to evaluate rewards and motivate us to obtain them.
Starting in early adolescence and peaking midway through, enhanced dopamine release causes adolescents to gravitate toward thrilling experiences and exhilarating sensations.
This enhanced dopamine release can lead them to focus solely on the positive rewards, while failing to notice or give value to the potential risks and consequences.
The cortical areas that work as an alarm system to warn the individual of risky behaviour is not entirely up to speed; promoting the impulsive sensation-seeking that often characterises adolescence.
But what may seem like a defect is essential for development into adult life.
The good news is that such impulses can be put on hold if certain fibers in the higher part of the brain work to create a mental space between impulse and action.
Eventually regulatory fibers begin to grow to counteract the revved-up “go” of the dopamine reward system.
The result is a decrease in impulsivity.
This is sometimes called “cognitive control” and is one important source of diminished danger and reduced risks as adolescents develop.