Teenage Brains Show Different Risk Tolerances

Everyone knows it - adolescence is a time for exploring, experimenting, and generally testing the boundaries. Teenagers are known for trying risky activities like drinking alcohol, experimenting with drugs, and driving recklessly. Previous studies have found that the teen brain is not fully developed, partially explaining their tolerance of risk - but new research is showing that some teens are more prone to experimenting and exploring new things than others, and that difference is hardwired into their brains. 

At the forthcoming American Academy of Neurology’s Annual Meeting, researchers from the University of California San Francisco will present results from a study that found that preteens who are open to experimenting and trying novel things have different brain processes at work compared with their more reticent peers. 

Study author Dr. Andrew Kayser says that the beginning of adolescence is strongly associated with seeking new experiences and exhibiting more exploratory behaviors, but that little research has been done to measure that increase or to understand what processes in the brain are involved in this behavior. 

In his study of preteens, the participants were given a task and underwent magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans of their brains. They were told they would earn points according to when they stopped the second hand of a clock. However, they were not told which stopping times were associated with the highest rewards. To find out which stopping times corresponded to low and high scores, the participants were required to stop the clock at different times to see what their reward would be. 

The researchers then split the participants into a group of 41 ‘explorers’ and 21 ‘non-explorers,’ based on their behavior in the task. Comparing the brain scans of the two groups, the researchers found there was a stronger connection in the explorers between the rostrolateral prefrontal cortex and the posterior insula and putamen brain regions. Previous studies have associated the rostrolateral prefrontal cortex with higher-level decision making. 

Dr. Kayser believes his research will add to our understanding of how exploration can lead to positive and negative behaviors that affect teens. He believes that by identifying the brain conditions associated with greater experimentation and exploration, in the future we may be able to identify teens who are most likely to engage in dangerous or risky behaviors.

This mother thinks relying on a brain scan to tell you if your teen is likely to engage in risky behavior is lax parenting - even though it can be hard to believe that our little darlings are sometimes less than perfect, most parents can sense when something’s up with their teen. A little commonsense may go as far as an MRI in identifying the teens most at risk of dangerous behavior.

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Used under Creative Commons Licensing courtesy of Johan Bichel Lindegaard