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How Brain Cells Change During the Teenage Years

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



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 Brains Change Physiologically

Teen Brains Change Physiologically

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.

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 six 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.

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 a 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:A second window of opportunity

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.

© 2019 Pamela Oglesby


Pamela Oglesby (author) from Sunny Florida on February 24, 2020:

Hi Peggy, I had not thought about car insurance but I bet you are right. I appreciate your comments.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on February 23, 2020:

The fact of teen brains maturing a bit later is probably why the costs of car insurance for families with teens is higher. Risk-taking often can lead to accidents. It is incredible what can be determined by studying the brain with modern-day equipment.

Pamela Oglesby (author) from Sunny Florida on September 05, 2019:

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

Maria Jordan from Jeffersonville PA on September 04, 2019:

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

Pamela Oglesby (author) from Sunny Florida on September 03, 2019:

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 from Ohio on September 03, 2019:

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!

Pamela Oglesby (author) from Sunny Florida on August 27, 2019:

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.

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on August 27, 2019:

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.

Pamela Oglesby (author) from Sunny Florida on August 27, 2019:

Hi Robert, Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

Robert Sacchi on August 26, 2019:

It is amazing.

Pamela Oglesby (author) from Sunny Florida on August 26, 2019:

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 on August 25, 2019:

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

Pamela Oglesby (author) from Sunny Florida on August 22, 2019:

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.

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on August 21, 2019:

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.

Pamela Oglesby (author) from Sunny Florida on August 21, 2019:

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 on August 21, 2019:

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.

Pamela Oglesby (author) from Sunny Florida on August 21, 2019:

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

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on August 20, 2019:

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..

Pamela Oglesby (author) from Sunny Florida on August 19, 2019:

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.

Pamela Oglesby (author) from Sunny Florida on August 19, 2019:

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 from USA on August 19, 2019:

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

Doris James MizBejabbers from Beautiful South on August 18, 2019:

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.

Pamela Oglesby (author) from Sunny Florida on August 18, 2019:

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.

Mary Wickison from USA on August 18, 2019:

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.

Pamela Oglesby (author) from Sunny Florida on August 18, 2019:

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.

Linda Lum from Washington State, USA on August 18, 2019:

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?

Pamela Oglesby (author) from Sunny Florida on August 18, 2019:

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.

Pamela Oglesby (author) from Sunny Florida on August 18, 2019:

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.

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on August 18, 2019:

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

I think critical.

Ruby Jean Richert from Southern Illinois on August 18, 2019:

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.

Pamela Oglesby (author) from Sunny Florida on August 18, 2019:

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.

Ioannis Arvanitis from Greece, Almyros on August 18, 2019:

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.



Pamela Oglesby (author) from Sunny Florida on August 18, 2019:

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.

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on August 18, 2019:

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.

Pamela Oglesby (author) from Sunny Florida on August 18, 2019:

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.

Pamela Oglesby (author) from Sunny Florida on August 18, 2019:

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.

Pamela Oglesby (author) from Sunny Florida on August 18, 2019:

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.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on August 18, 2019:

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.

Pamela Oglesby (author) from Sunny Florida on August 18, 2019:

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 on August 18, 2019:

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.

Liz Westwood from UK on August 18, 2019:

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.

Chris Mills from Traverse City, MI on August 18, 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.

Pamela Oglesby (author) from Sunny Florida on August 18, 2019:

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.

Vivian Coblentz on August 17, 2019:

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!