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Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Teen Decision-Making Hampered by Brain Development

Your teen may look all grown up to you but his or her brain is not. Next time your teen stresses out and does something she shouldn’t have that requires making a judgment call, try to remember this is your teens’ brain on normal.

Researchers at the National Institute of Mental Health compared the brain activity of healthy youth with healthy adults in an effort to gauge their responses to a perceived threat. People looked at a series of photos and immediately recorded how afraid they felt. 

Here’s what they found.

Teens ability to size-up a situation is limited

Teen brains process fear differently than those of adults. Why? Adults use three parts of their brains to make decisions about fight or flight, teens use two. Both use the hippocampus, or the part of the brain that stores memory and the amygdala which activates the "fight-or-flight" response to stress. 

But teen brains don’t make complete use of the late-maturing dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC). The DLPFC helps with decision-making, because it is deeply involved in helping the brain categorize information and objects into different groups. In adults, DLPFC activity increases as their brains registered more fear than safety. In teens that doesn’t happen.

Ever notice how your teen stresses over decision-making more than you do? That’s because his or her brain didn't register all of the information given and process it quickly. As a result, teens are more likely to take a situation at face value and less likely to question a situation that feels normal but might not be. 
Ever wonder why your kid has to do all those organizational charts in elementary school? It’s to jump
start the DLPFC function. 

So the next time your teenagers make a bad judgment call, remember it’s not completely their fault. And talk to them about decision-making, explaining why they should take a moment to think about what they do or say, before they act. 

Research was funded by the National Institute of Mental Health. You can find a link at http://www.nimh.nih.gov/science-news/2011/teen-brain-less-discerning-of-threat-vs-safety-more-vulnerable-to-stress.shtml. Researcher is Jennifer Lau, Ph.D., of Oxford University (formerly at NIMH).

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