The Teen Brain: It’s Strong but Vulnerable

The adolescent brain is not a child’s brain, well, at least not all the time. And it’s not an adult brain either. Yet, it’s the perfect tool for making the transition from childhood to adulthood, from immaturity to maturity, from dependence to independence.


Researchers of the adolescent brain point out clearly to parents and teachers that just because the teen brain is changing doesn’t mean that it’s not up to par. In fact, because the teen brain is exploding with growth, there is great capacity for learning, expanding one’s social life, exploration, and testing the limits of what’s possible.


Of course, this change in development is precisely what brings risky behavior, dangerous situations, and sometimes harm to teens. Yet it’s all in the name of meeting their need for discovery and exploration in order to eventually arrive at maturity and stability. From the brain’s point of view, teens 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.


In fact, 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 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 amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for emotional reactivity, and the prefrontal cortex, associated with emotional regulation and critical thinking skills.


Another big discovery in adolescent brain research is that the teen brain doesn’t begin to look like that of an adult until an individual’s early 20’s. Teens tend to be impulsive. Some might believe that the impulsivity of teens is simply characteristic of being adolescents because, in a way, they’re still lingering in childhood as they make their way towards adulthood. However, the impulsivity of adolescents is in fact mostly due to how their brains are wired, as described above.


In addition to being impulsive, they’re vulnerable. Even though teens may be experiencing their physical health, mental capacities, and strength, it may not be surprising to know that they are six times more likely than children ages 10 to 14 to experience death by injury. Alcohol rates are high relative to rates for those of other ages. Crime rates are highest among male teens and mortality rates for teens of both sexes are high at this stage of life. Teens are also at risk for developing depression, anxiety, and addictions.


Perhaps after learning just how vulnerable the teen brain is parents may want to protect their children from the dangers of drugs, drinking, and addiction. For instance, when teens begin to drink, they rarely recognize the effects on their families, peers, and on their own lives. In fact, because of the damaging effects of underage drinking, the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism recognizes teen alcohol abuse as a “widespread public health problem”.


Other drugs, such as marijuana, will mimic a neurotransmitter and in a way “fool” a receptor. The drug will lock onto the receptors and activate the nerve cells. However, because the drug is not the neurotransmitter that is intended for that receptor, the neurons end up sending abnormal messages throughout the brain. Of course, this leads to hallucination, abnormal thoughts, and change in perception. Regular use of marijuana (considered to be at least once per week) can lead to cognitive decline, poor attention, and decreased IQ levels.  And the danger of cocaine use in the way it affects the teen brain is that it predisposes a teen to addictions later on.


Teens have such a striking capacity for creativity and growth that it seems perfectly equipped to make the transition into adulthood – that is, if given the right opportunities to grow. In fact, research indicates that the next area of learning for adults regarding teens is how they can create an environment that facilitates exploration and experimentation versus behavior that is destructive to themselves and others.