How Brain Cells Change During the Teenage Years
Several neurocognitive changes occur in the brains of adolescents until early adulthood. Their cognitive abilities related to self-regulation are not fully developed, so adolescents tend to be risk-takers. Even young teens seek out thrilling experiences that increase in number during this phase of growth. Since teens have less ability to exercise self-control, they also have an increased vulnerability to trying out drugs and becoming dependent on drugs.
The brain has white matter and gray matter. The white matter is like the brain’s subway system as it connects to various areas of gray matter so messages travel quickly. The gray matter covers the surface of the brain and is made up of neurons. Gray matter aids in the process of information. For example, it will tell you to quickly pull your hand off a hot surface.
Physiologic Changes in Teen Brains
If an adult sees an angry person coming toward them, multiple areas of their brain will turn on, including the limbic system, which is a group of brain cells deep inside the brain that begin the emotional process. Adults then show activity in their prefrontal cortex, which is located behind the forehead. This area helps make decisions, and it also uses better judgment. The amygdala located deep in the brain also plays a role in emotions.
Adolescent brains morph as they grow. As areas mature, they build connections; some areas of the brain disconnect, and they get trimmed away. Teens do not show activity in their prefrontal cortex. Adolescents react with the limbic system in emotional situations, but the prefrontal cortex is not well-developed at this time. Therefore, teens often react emotionally, and they take risks.
Brain With Stress
How Stress Affects the Adolescent’s Brain
Teens tend to internalize stress, which actually changes the shape and the size of their brains when they are living with a great deal of stress. They replay stressful events in their minds and usually bottle up their emotions. Some of the stressful events that affect children are the death of a parent, being abused, or living in extreme poverty.
In England, 500 boys were studied from birth till age 18 to 21. The mothers of the boys answered questions describing the types of stress their children had experienced. Children who had experienced trauma or stress before age 6 were more likely to have depression or to be withdrawn as teenagers.
Gray brain-matter shrinkage, particularly in the frontal lobe, was seen in those boys who experienced stress as compared to those children who had less stressful childhoods. However, the precuneus area had more gray matter, which may lead to the explanation that the brain was trying to cope.
Testosterone levels also affect the brain. Men and women both have testosterone, and it increases in puberty. Testosterone affects brain performance. It affects muscles and size in males, and it actually helps reorganize the brain during adolescence. Scientists are trying to better understand brain performance during adolescence.
How the Brain Changes During Childhood and Adolescence
Medical Study of Adolescents
As over one-half of adolescents in the U.S. are overweight or obese, the scientists decided to study the brains of teens from age 14 to 19 to determine how the brain functioned when tempting foods were discussed. Excess weight has been linked to several diseases, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and strokes. The scientists' goal is to learn how to prevent obesity.
Researchers from Cornell studied 36 teenagers to determine their response to tempting “food cues,” such as French fries and chocolate. The research was designed to study the adolescent brain with the goal of predicting adult obesity. The researchers used functional MRI scans that measure blood flow through the brain to determine the teen’s response.
After the MRI scan, the teens were offered some high-fat and low-fat food to see if their appetites lined up with their responses during the MRIs.
The result of the study revealed that the teenagers had reduced activity in the brain’s self-regulation area, but the words did stimulate the areas of the brain associated with emotion and reward. Some teens were lean, and some were overweight. The lean teens were thought to be at risk due to obesity that ran in their families.
The researchers concluded that the reduced activity in the brain’s self-regulation system was the better predictor of adult obesity than the heightened response of the reward system. Their findings suggest that obesity prevention should be designed to strengthen the teen's self-regulatory system rather than a program that only focuses on diet and exercise, since they have not been very successful at preventing obesity.
The Adolescent Brain
The teen years can be tumultuous until the frontal cortex works. Teenagers may act or occasionally behave in an irrational, impulsive, or dangerous way. They do not always make the best decisions, but their thought processes improve as they age. Sometimes, I think the teen years can be tougher on the parent.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
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© 2019 Pamela Oglesby