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2017 Children's Mental Health Report

Living in Technicolor: Teen Behavior and the Brain

Although most teenagers successfully navigate the transition from dependence on a caregiver to being a self-sufficient member of society, adolescence is also a time of increasing incidence of several classes of psychiatric illness.
Tomáš Paus, Matcheri Keshavan and Jay N. Giedd

This dynamic process of establishing structural and functional connections in and between different brain regions is directly related to typical teen behaviors.

  • The limbic system, a collection of brain regions associated with emotion, motivation, and behavior, develops early. Imaging studies suggest that these circuits become even more active in adolescents — more so than in adults.
  • Another vital system developing in adolescence is the reward circuitry of the brain, which includes the basal ganglia and enables pleasurable feelings, habit-formation and appetite. The reward system is more active and less inhibited by the frontal cortex in early adolescence.¹ ² ³
  • Along with hormonal changes in puberty, the developing interplay between the prefrontal cortex and the emotional and reward centers of the limbic system and the basal ganglia appear to contribute to the vividness of adolescent experience. This interplay results in increased intensity in feelings (fear, aggression, excitement, sexual attraction) and decreased ability to “hit the brakes” in responding to these feelings, characterized by spontaneity, impulsivity, and the potential to develop unhealthy habits.
  • Increased sensitivity of the limbic system has also been linked to feeling self-consciousness, making adolescents truly feel like everyone is watching them. These feelings peak around 15 years old.
  • Peer approval has been shown to be highly rewarding to the teen brain, which may be why teens are more likely to take risks when other teens are around—or even when teens just THINK that peers are watching .

[1] Casey, B., & Jones, R. M. (2010). Neurobiology of the Adolescent Brain and Behavior: Implications for Substance Use Disorders. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 49(12), 1189-1201. doi:10.1016/j.jaac.2010.08.017

[2] Paus (2008).

[3] Hammond, C.J., Mayes, L.C., & Potenza, M.N. (2014). Neurobiology of Adolescent Substance Use and Addictive Behaviors. Adolescent Medicine: State of the Art Reviews, 25(1), 15–32.

[4] Steinberg, L. (2008). A Social Neuroscience Perspective on Adolescent Risk-Taking. Developmental Review : DR, 28(1), 78–106.

[5] Barkley-Levenson, E., & Galván, A. (2014). Neural representation of expected value in the adolescent brain. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(4), 1646–1651. doi:10.1073/pnas.1319762111