22 August 2019

Understanding the adolescent brain

Teenagers! Despite being one of the most well researched demographics, it seems that for many adults the rationale behind their poor judgements, risk taking and ability to sleep for 14 hours (if given the opportunity) remains a mystery. The truth is that while physically their bodies are growing rapidly to resemble that of adults, their brains still have many years of development left to reach maturation. As such, in addition to the sudden hormonal changes and increased peer pressure that these years bring, many young people during adolescence have a limited capacity to self-regulate against impulses (Tarullo, Obradovic & Gunnar, 2009), even if the resulting outcome is negative.

Brain Development: The Basics

The prefrontal cortex is a region of the brain forming part of the frontal lobe, and is responsible for executive functions such as problem solving, judgement, risk assessment and prioritising. Until approximately 25 years of age (Steinberg, 2008), this section of the brain is essentially under construction, which if not well managed can present significant challenges. The prefrontal cortex is also responsible for the detection of emotion and understanding the actions of others. For instance, upon walking into a room full of Manchester United fans wearing an Arsenal T-shirt, as an adult your prefrontal cortex would likely immediately begin sending warning signals (through synapses) informing you that the two teams are rivals, which in turn might prompt you to change your behaviour (as well as perhaps your clothing). For a teenager whose prefrontal cortex has not fully developed, they may be unable to fully understand the emotional reaction a similar situation would evoke in others. As such, their behaviours which may be perceived as unreasonable or illogical need to be understood within the context of their brain and hormonal development.

The Role of Nature & Nurture

 As the adolescent brain is continuously evolving, a combination of an individual’s unique neurobiology as well as their environmental influences shape the way they experience and react to the world around them. Research by Blomeyer et al (2013) indicates the when initial alcohol consumption occurs during early and pre-adolescence, individuals were more likely to be diagnosed with an alcohol related disorder in adulthood. This can likely be attributed to the role of neuroplasticity, which is the process by which synapses are strengthened over time based on how often they are used, which in turn causes the brain to adapt to influences from the environment. For young people in particular who are still developing neurologically, the activities they engage in during this period have a significant influence on their functioning in adulthood.

 It’s not all bad!

While a lot of attention is often placed on the ways the developing adolescent brain can result in negative outcomes, the plasticity of the teenage brain under the right environmental circumstances can be its strength. Whether it is learning to play a new instrument, developing emotional intelligence or the ability to respond effectively to interventions, the literature (Steinberg, 2010) points to the suggestion that adolescence is a unique period of time where both nature and nurture work in unison to mould human behaviour.



Blomeyer, D., Friemel, C. M., Buchmann, A. F., Banaschewski, T., Laucht, M., & Schneider, M. (2013). Impact of pubertal stage at first drink on adult drinking behavior. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research37(10), 1804-1811.

 Steinberg, L. (2008). A social neuroscience perspective on adolescent risk-taking. Developmental review28(1), 78-106.

Steinberg, L. (2010). Commentary: A behavioral scientist looks at the science of adolescent brain development. Brain and cognition72(1), 160.

Tarullo, A. R., Obradovic, J., & Gunnar, M. R. (2009). Self-control and the developing brain. Zero to three29(3), 31.


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