The Brain Differences in Risk Taking Teens

According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), unintentional injury is the number one cause of death for adolescents. The CDC recognizes behaviors among teens that specifically lead to violence such as carrying a weapon, carrying a gun specifically versus other weapons, being in a physical fight, experiencing being hit, slapped, or physically hurt intentionally by a boyfriend or girlfriend (dating violence), avoiding school because of its lack of safety, experiencing bullying, or considering and/or attempting suicide.


Yet, despite recognizing certain behaviors that lead to unintentional injury, some researchers wanted to further investigate this leading cause of death among adolescents. A recent study was administered by the Center for BrainHealth at the University of Texas exploring the differences in brain regions that are associated with risk taking in teens. The research found that connections between certain brain regions are amplified in teens who are more prone to risky behavior.


The study rested on the fact that the brain has an emotional-regulation network that helps govern emotions and influence decision making. Research has already found that among teens, this part of the brain is still in its development. For instance, the frontal cortex, which governs reasoning, planning, judgment, and impulse control, completes its growth during ages 23-26. This might explain a teen’s tendency to make poor decisions and an inability to discern whether a situation is safe. Teens tend to experiment with risky behavior and don’t fully recognize the consequences of their choices.


On the other hand, in adults, the frontal cortex is completely developed. They are able to process and organize information. Adults, who are emotionally and psychologically healthy, are able to judge risky behavior and factor into decision-making the consequences of their choices. Teens might rely more on their amygdala, the part of the brain dealing with emotions, whereas adults rely more on their frontal cortex, leading to balanced thinking and behavior.


The study done at Center for BrainHealth investigated the behavior of 36 adolescents between the ages of 12-17. Participants were screened for risk taking behaviors such as drug and alcohol use, sexual promiscuity, and physical violence. Each teen underwent MRI testing in order for researchers to examine the communication between brain regions. The study revealed that risk taking teens exhibit hyperconnectivity between the amydgala, the part of the brain responsible for emotional reactivity, and the prefrontal cortex, associated with emotional regulation and critical thinking skills.


The implications of the study might lead to developing better intervention and treatment methods to help risk-taking adolescents to regulate their emotions and avoid risky behavior altogether. This includes behaviors listed above as well as substance abuse.


Furthermore, youth that are at-risk, meaning those who have had distressing childhoods and by virtue of their circumstances are more at risk to fail academically, occupationally, and socially. They likely had a poor or little attachment to a primary caregiver, tend to be vulnerable to harm against self and others, drug use, early sexual activity, suicide attempts, and mental illness. Types of mental illness prevalent among at risk youth are Conduct Disorder, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, and even Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). The results of this study might be able to contribute to identifying children who are vulnerable to these disorders based on brain connectivity.


This study was published earlier this year in Psychiatry Research Neuroimaging. In addiction to identifying children who are vulnerable to these disorders, the results of the study might also contribute to new treatment methods and adolescent interventions.



Center for BrainHealth. (2014, August 15). Brain imaging shows brain differences in risk-taking teens. ScienceDaily. Retrieved August 28, 2014 from