What makes teenagers so different from adults?

Adolescent brains work differently than adults

03.04.2008

An American study that compared adolescent brains with those of children and adults using magnetic resonance imaging showed that the brains undergo enormous neurobiological changes during puberty. These can affect thinking, feelings and behavior ...

With their pubescent children, many parents often have the impression that they are suddenly dealing with strangers. Scientists around Dr. Jay N. Giedd, from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) in America, has now published a work that shows, through magnetic resonance imaging, why this is so.

Dr. Giedd explains that adolescents are going through enormous neurobiological changes. But that doesn't mean their brains match that of immature adult brains. Adolescent brains undergo a tremendous adaptation process in which new connections are made and unimportant ones are pushed back, different brain functions are connected with one another and restructured, such as the reward system. At the same time, there is a turning away from the family of origin. Young people are becoming more willing to take risks and are looking for new experiences. These behaviors have led to great adaptability in the evolution of mankind, which researchers say may also be beneficial in the future. These changes and the enormous malleability during adolescence is a time of risk, but also a time with many possibilities, say the scientists.

The NIMH project Longitudinal Brain Imaging, which provided the data basis for the investigation of Dr. Giedd and his colleagues began in 1989. The participants were examined at two-year intervals. By September 2007, approximately 5,000 recordings had been acquired by 2,000 people in this way. 387 participants, who were between 3 and 27 years old and did not suffer from any mental illness, served as models for typical brain development.

When looking at brain development in pictures, three aspects became clear, among others:

  • The growing brain links the brain structures and regions more and more with each other.
  • In the brain images, the scientists also saw a general increase in gray matter (areas of the central nervous system that mainly consist of nerve cell bodies) during puberty, which then decreased again. Parts of the brain developed excessively, but were then partially pushed back as the brain refined its structures.
  • According to the research results, the third focus of adolescent brain development seems to be the change in the balance between cognitive and emotional regulatory systems in the brain. These develop at different speeds in order to ultimately strengthen the executive functions. Scientists understand executive functions to include skills such as self-control, impulse control, and attention regulation.