How Brain Cells Change During the Teenage Years

Updated on August 20, 2019
Pamela99 profile image

I spent 22 years in the nursing profession. I enjoy writing, reading historical novels, gardening, and helping people live a healthier life.

Daredevil

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Adolescent Brains

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.

Teen Girls

Source

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

Source

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

In Summary

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.

Questions & Answers

    © 2019 Pamela Oglesby

    Comments

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    • Pamela99 profile imageAUTHOR

      Pamela Oglesby 

      2 weeks ago from Sunny Florida

      Hi Maria, You have given me a very generous comment. I appreciate it. and I wish you the best. Love, Pam

    • marcoujor profile image

      Maria Jordan 

      2 weeks ago from Jeffersonville PA

      Dear Pam,

      This is a fascinating post about the physiological reasons for adolescent behaviors.

      It seems as though we come full circle as we learn about prefrontal cortex atrophy predicting dementia in later years.

      Thank you for another informational masterpiece. Love, Maria

    • Pamela99 profile imageAUTHOR

      Pamela Oglesby 

      2 weeks ago from Sunny Florida

      Hi Alyssa, The teen years are long gone for my sons, but this information explains a lot of things. LOL

      I am glad you found this article informative, and I appreciate your comments.

    • Alyssa Nichol profile image

      Alyssa 

      2 weeks ago from Ohio

      What a wonderful and informative article.. the brain is a fascinating subject! I think this information will be useful to parents and teens alike.. The teen years are just around the corner for us. haha!

    • Pamela99 profile imageAUTHOR

      Pamela Oglesby 

      3 weeks ago from Sunny Florida

      Hi Eric, I would never take you for a stalker. I may not be able to answer a question, but you can ask me anything. I don't think we can go backwards, but maybe we can just enjoy the moment with a younger child. Maybe it is just a change in attitude or in our reality. I don't really know the answer. I don't know the answer to your question Eric.

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 

      3 weeks ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      Pamela, I follow all of your articles, please do not think I am a stalker ;-)

      I am applying this early with Gabe. But I am cogitating on it for me. I know it is basically cell oriented however just consider this for a moment. I am regressing due to raising a pre-adolescent child. (thankfully not all things). I am theorizing that; suppose we can reverse and go back and redo?

      Sorry I know that is way out there and I will not be offended by a delete. Perhaps this dovetails with dementia by meds.

    • Pamela99 profile imageAUTHOR

      Pamela Oglesby 

      3 weeks ago from Sunny Florida

      Hi Robert, Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

    • Robert Sacchi profile image

      Robert Sacchi 

      3 weeks ago

      It is amazing.

    • Pamela99 profile imageAUTHOR

      Pamela Oglesby 

      3 weeks ago from Sunny Florida

      Hi Robert, Yes, I think there are probably more studies then those I mentioned but they are probably very new. The studies I reviewed did show changes in the brain, particularly for people who had a stressful upbringing. Thanks for your comments.

    • Robert Sacchi profile image

      Robert Sacchi 

      3 weeks ago

      This is extremely interesting. Are there studies on the transition from adolescence to adulthood?

    • Pamela99 profile imageAUTHOR

      Pamela Oglesby 

      4 weeks ago from Sunny Florida

      Hi Ms. Dora, I am glad you found this information good for a family discussion. I really enjoyed doing the research and writing this article as I thought it was important information. I appreciate your comments.

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Weithers 

      4 weeks ago from The Caribbean

      Great information which can be useful to both teens and parents. It will help them understand why they couldn't possibly know it all and why their judgement may not be accurate. Good topic for family discussion.

    • Pamela99 profile imageAUTHOR

      Pamela Oglesby 

      4 weeks ago from Sunny Florida

      Hi RTalloni, I think you made an excellent point. If you have a fairly good dialog with your child I don't see why you couldn't try and explain the process. They may not want to believe it but these days you could tell them to Google it. Thanks so much for your comments.

    • RTalloni profile image

      RTalloni 

      4 weeks ago from the short journey

      An interesting look at teens' brains. In spite of the science behind the fact that the human brain does not completely mature until the mid-twenties, parents allow, even encourage, society to treat them as if they are grown-ups because they are afraid of being accused of being overprotective. "Everyone else is doing it" is the excuse. Maybe we need to help their brains grow up by helping them understand their own brains.

    • Pamela99 profile imageAUTHOR

      Pamela Oglesby 

      4 weeks ago from Sunny Florida

      Hi Linda, I am glad you found this to be an interesting topic. I always appreciate your comments.

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 

      4 weeks ago from British Columbia, Canada

      I've never thought much about the brain of teenagers before. It's an interesting topic. Thank you for creating a thought-provoking article, Pamela..

    • Pamela99 profile imageAUTHOR

      Pamela Oglesby 

      4 weeks ago from Sunny Florida

      Hi Flourish. Yes, sometimes ignorance is bliss because as a parent you always want to protect them. You just can't protect your children all the time. Thanks for your comments.

    • Pamela99 profile imageAUTHOR

      Pamela Oglesby 

      4 weeks ago from Sunny Florida

      Hi Doris, I am sorry to hear about your son dying, and I also had no idea that stress could permanently change the brain either until I did the research.

      I understand what you are saying about trying to make up for what the father didn't do. I had much of the same situation with my 3 boys and the divorce. My oldest son was favored also. They are all doing okay, but life has been harder for my youngest. I appreciate you sharing your experience. Thank you so much.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 

      4 weeks ago from USA

      Oh, some of the risks they take. Sometimes it’s better that the parent either never know or find out long after.

    • MizBejabbers profile image

      Doris James MizBejabbers 

      4 weeks ago from Beautiful South

      Pamela, this is such an informative article. I knew that stress affected the psyche of the young, but I had no idea it could damage the brain so much. That explains my two sons. During the years of our stress with their father both before and after our divorce, the older boy was favored and loved by his father. The younger was treated ok, but knew that his father just tolerated him. My love couldn't make up for that loss. The outcome was that the loved brother is still alive, the younger one was the rebel, and died of a heart attack two days before his 51st birthday.

    • Pamela99 profile imageAUTHOR

      Pamela Oglesby 

      4 weeks ago from Sunny Florida

      Hi Mary, I imagine the outrage would be great if the age was increased to 25 for alcohol and drinking. I think you make an excellent point about the effect of social media.

      I appreciate your very nice comments.

    • Blond Logic profile image

      Mary Wickison 

      4 weeks ago from Brazil

      When I read this I thought both the legal age for drinking and also driving should be increased. Can you imagine the outcry if those were raised to 25.

      My concern is social media. I see young people trying increasingly risky activities to post something 'never seen before'. It has turned into a 'look at me' society.

      Fascinating article that parents, young adults, and teachers should read.

    • Pamela99 profile imageAUTHOR

      Pamela Oglesby 

      4 weeks ago from Sunny Florida

      Hi Linda, It is hard to think most 18 year-olds are ready for the military, yet many enlist. The results of these tests do explain a lot of the behaviors you listed.

      I have a grandson that is very smart but graduated high school with no direction. After a few months of doing nothing much, he enlisted in the Navy and spent 6 years on nuclear submarines. Now he is married and making straight As in college, so I guess we never now. He never got in any trouble thank goodness. I appreciate your comments.

    • Carb Diva profile image

      Linda Lum 

      4 weeks ago from Washington State, USA

      Pamela this certainly explains a lot--the impulsivity, the angst, bullying. It is said that the 100 days between Memorial Day and Labor Day are the most dangerous for teens, driving, etc.

      I do find myself wondering, however, if it is wise to place 18-year olds in the military?

    • Pamela99 profile imageAUTHOR

      Pamela Oglesby 

      4 weeks ago from Sunny Florida

      Hi again Eric, I think your som loves your attention. Getting a bit of extra rest sounds wonderful to me, but I am not you. Your son loves you and so do many of us out here in Hubpages. Take care, Eric.

    • Pamela99 profile imageAUTHOR

      Pamela Oglesby 

      4 weeks ago from Sunny Florida

      Hi Ruby, I think we do get some understanding as to why young people do such crazy things. I think parenting is still huge in determining the outcome of children. I appreciate your comments.

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 

      4 weeks ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      As spoken I have come back. I got a dark look regarding 9 or more hours of sleep for my youngster.

      I think critical.

    • always exploring profile image

      Ruby Jean Richert 

      4 weeks ago from Southern Illinois

      This was an informative article. The young men doing the shootings around the world are so quick to act. The obese children usually have obese parents. ( Not always ) Your article explains these two factors well. Thank you for sharing.

    • Pamela99 profile imageAUTHOR

      Pamela Oglesby 

      5 weeks ago from Sunny Florida

      Hi Sean, If this is new information for you I sure hope it will help your understanding of teens who push the limit. I think you might have your hands full, but I have no doubt you are up for the job. Thanks you so much for your comments.

    • Sean Dragon profile image

      Ioannis Arvanitis 

      5 weeks ago from Greece, Almyros

      An excellent article! Informed, thoughtful and foremost helpful for any parent! I have four sons, two of them are already teens and I am a teacher of teenagers, so I thank you double for your help.

      Gratitude!

      Sean

    • Pamela99 profile imageAUTHOR

      Pamela Oglesby 

      5 weeks ago from Sunny Florida

      Good morning Eric, Maybe you are just a bit eccentric! Haha

      I am glad your children are all doing well. Your precocious youngest boy is unique, and I mean that in a very positive way. I am glad you found this article informative, and I appreciate your praise.

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 

      5 weeks ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      Two girls and two boys. What a ride it is. I wonder about changes in that brain. How come my 30 somethings are more "normal" than this old coot. My 40 something wife is far more rational than I.

      My youngest at pre-teen often plays the roll of parent. I concern myself with that. I was sane at 9 but crazy by 60.

      This is so well written I have read it twice.

      Sorry but I will be back in my adolescent mind to question more fully.

    • Pamela99 profile imageAUTHOR

      Pamela Oglesby 

      5 weeks ago from Sunny Florida

      Hi Bill, I had 3 boys, and that was just fine with me. They kept me busy sometimes! I think today it is probably harder to raise children. I was so naive about many things growing up, but with social media, kids are not naive today. I appreciate your comments, Bill.

    • Pamela99 profile imageAUTHOR

      Pamela Oglesby 

      5 weeks ago from Sunny Florida

      Hi Lorna, I agree that diet and exercise are important, but if the plan is too rigid a child might not comply. I think sometimes you can get a child to be more active my limiting computer time and trying to get them involved in some sport. I like that researchers are looking at this from a different angle.

      I think the impact of stress may explain depression in adults, but I wonder about treatment. If a person has changes in their brain due to childhood stress they may not be responsive to medications. I wonder if the treatment with magnets would help this person.

      I appreciate your comments, Lorna. They really made me think about those particular problems some more.

    • Pamela99 profile imageAUTHOR

      Pamela Oglesby 

      5 weeks ago from Sunny Florida

      Hi Liz, Finding all of this information even helps me understand my grandchildren better. I hope it does help other parents. I remember the sleep patters changing when my 3 boys were teens also. I appreciate your comments, Liz.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 

      5 weeks ago from Olympia, WA

      All fascinating stuff, as usual. I was stuck on that first picture of the two teen girls. I was thinking that if I was a parent of an adorable teen girl, I would never get any sleep. I would always be concerned for their welfare. Sure glad I had a boy! Anyway, great information, my friend.

    • Pamela99 profile imageAUTHOR

      Pamela Oglesby 

      5 weeks ago from Sunny Florida

      Hi Chris, I am glad to hear you are not as reckless now. My oldest and youngest son were daredevils, and now I understand their behavior better. My oldest son still challenges himself but all the flipping upside down on a skateboard has passed.

      Thanks so much for your comments, Chris.

    • Lorna Lamon profile image

      Lorna Lamon 

      5 weeks ago

      Really informative article Pamela and I was particularly interested in how stress affects the brain in adolescents and also the medical study on obesity and how it can be better treated. I believe that getting to the core of the problem is always the best way to find how to prevent it. Diet and exercise are certainly important, however, it has to be a combination treatment plan. Great read.

    • Eurofile profile image

      Liz Westwood 

      5 weeks ago from UK

      When my children were going tgrough their teens and I commented on their late nights and late mornings a friend pointed out that changing sleep patterns were due to changes in their brains. Your article is well-researched and especially helpful for parents of teenagers.

    • cam8510 profile image

      Chris Mills 

      5 weeks ago from Dallas, Texas through August 23, 2019.

      Well, I was a daredevil as a kid through my teen years. Your article explains that very well. Why do I sort of continue that behavior as a 62-year-old adult? I'm not quite as reckless as I was fifty years ago. Thanks for clarifying the physiology and behavior of teens.

    • Pamela99 profile imageAUTHOR

      Pamela Oglesby 

      5 weeks ago from Sunny Florida

      Hi Vivian, I never understood these facts when I was raising my 3 boys, but they all turned out just fine. it does help to understand this aspect of children's brains as they grow. It sounds like you are doing just fine. I appreciate your comments.

    • Noelle7 profile image

      Vivian Coblentz 

      5 weeks ago

      Well, this explains a lot! Now, I won't over-react when parenting by saying, "What were you thinking?!" because now I know they weren't! LOL!

      I didn't realize childhood stress impacted the brain so much! I'm glad my kids have had happy, stress-free childhoods thus far!

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