Tag Archives: Adolescent Brain Development

The Neurological Potential For Psychological Turmoil During Adolescence.

brain changes in adolescence

For many, adolescence is a very difficult and stressful time, not least because of the neurological and interacting hormonal changes that occur during the period.

Changes In The Brain :

Between the ages of about ten and early adulthood, the brain undergoes three major periods of dramatic physical development as described below :

  • Between the ages of 10 years and 12 years : during this period there occurs a massive increase in neurons (a neuron is a brain cell that receives, processes and transmits information via chemical and electrical signals) and synapses (connections between neurons) in the brain’s FRONTAL CORTEX (the brain’s frontal cortex is involved in reasoning, higher level thinking, decision making, logic, judgment, impulse control, emotional control and planning). However, it is important to note that the FRONTAL CORTEX does not become fully developed until the early to mid-twenties (Kotulak).
  • Between the ages of 13 years and 15 years : during this period there are qualitative changes in nerve pathways which allow the ability to perform abstract thinking to develop.
  • From the age of 17 years upwards : continued development of the brain’s frontal lobes increase the individual’s ability to plan and think logically.

Lack of impulse control, poor judgment, poor planning and illogical thinking can, of course, lead to the kind of dangerous, impulsive risk-taking behavior often seen in adolescents ; such behavior is also exacerbated by the fact that the adolescent brain is wired up in such a way that the teenager is highly stimulated to seek out novel experiences / indulge in experimental behavior.

The Adolescent Brain And Emotional Lability :

It is also important to note that during adolescence a region of the brain known as the AMYGDALA (which plays a very large part in the individual’s emotional experiences) is HIGHLY ACTIVE ; this frequently has the effect of causing the adolescent’s behavior to be substantially dictated by volatile and dramatically fluctuating emotions which may contribute to tensions in the home and/or conflict with peers.

Hormonal Changes :

Brain development is influenced by hormone production and, during adolescence, copious amounts of sex hormones, growth hormones, adrenal stress hormones and (in males) testosterone are produced.

Furthermore, studies suggest that, due to the relative immaturity of the connection between the prefrontal cortex and the mid-brain reward system, teenagers are more prone to becoming addicted to drugs (including nicotine). Also, this underdeveloped neuronal link between the prefrontal cortex and the mid-brain reward system may help to explain why some adolescents develop especially intense, dramatic and volatile romantic attachments during their teenage years.

Another effect of hormonal changes is that the adolescent’s diurnal rhythm (pattern of behavior that follows day-night / 24 hour cycles) is altered. This is why many teenagers inadvertently antagonize their parents (especially those parents who are as yet unacquainted with knowledge pertaining to adolescent diurnal rhythms) by staying up very late and then getting up very late.

Finally, because the level of testosterone produced by boys increases by 1000 per cent after puberty this dramatic elevation in quantity of the hormone in the body can potentially increase the young person’s propensity for violence which can, in turn, lead to involvement in schoolyard fights or worse.

And, of course, if, too, the adolescent has experienced significant childhood trauma, all of the above potential problems may become dramatically intensified.

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David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

 

 

 

 

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Why Adolescence is a Time of High Vulnerability.

adolescent_vulnerability

Contrary to what used to be believed, we now know, through neurological research, that, during adolescence, the brain is still EXTREMELY PLASTIC (in this context, the word ‘plastic‘ means that the brain is susceptible to physical change in response to environmental factors. Click here to read one of my articles on brain plasticity and how childhood trauma can adversely affect the physical development of the brain). This makes the period of adolescence a time of particular vulnerability.

EMOTIONAL DYSREGULATION, IMPULSIVITY AND NEED FOR APPROVAL FROM PEERS:

Often, adolescence is a time of emotional dysregulation (difficulty in managing emotions). The adolescent can have dramatically fluctuating emotions, be moody, poor at making decisions, impulsive, sensation-seeking and a high risk-taker. Furthermore, approval from others is especially important during this period of life, so adolescents also tend to be very vulnerable to peer-pressure; this can make them even more likely to take risks (eg to impress friends).

THE PREFRONTAL CORTEX AND RISK TAKING :

The prefrontal cortex is a region of the brain that is involved in :

– decision making

– long-term planning

– impulse control

– delaying gratification

However, during adolescence, this brain region IS NOT YET FULLY DEVELOPED.

adolescent_risk_taking

Above : Adolescence can be a time of high risk-taking. This has both neurological and evolutionary explanations.

This means that adolescents are especially likely to be HIGH RISK TAKERS. This is made even more likely due to the fact that the ‘REWARD CENTRE’ in the brain of adolescents is more active than it is in children and adults. This leads the adolescent to OVERESTIMATE THE REWARDS RISK TAKING WILL PRODUCE, further increasing the probability s/he will take risks (eg unprotected sex, excessive drinking, taking elicit and potentially harmful drugs, fast and dangerous driving etc).

adolescent_risk_taking

ABOVE : Another example of high risk-taking behaviour amongst young people.

EVOLUTIONARY EXPLANATION OF ADOLESCENT PROPENSITY TOWARDS HIGH RISK-TAKING BEHAVIOUR :

It is likely that risk-taking behaviour evolved in adolescents amongst our ancestors in order to make the individual open to new experiences and situations, thus making it more likely that s/he will be willing to leave the relative safety of being cared for by parents and start to live independently.

LEGAL IMPLICATIONS :

It has been strongly argued by various parties representing the interests of young people that the lack of development of the prefrontal cortex in adolescents, together with other factors mentioned above, should be taken into account when trying to assess the extent of their culpability when they commit certain crimes. However, this conundrum is still far from being fully resolved.

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David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE)

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Copyright 2014 Child Abuse, Trauma and Recovery