Research by Eveline Crone gives new insights into adolescent brain
The part of the brain of adolescents that regulates impulsive and reckless behaviour does not work inadequately, as researchers previously thought. Meta-analysis of neuroscientific research on the working of the adolescent brain has shown that it is much more flexible than was realised. Professor Eveline Crone and her American colleague Professor Ron Dahl have published an article on the subject in the journal Nature Reviews Neuroscience.
To date, 'typical adolescent behaviour', was attributed to the brain's 'immature' pre-frontal cortex (PFC). Because there are areas of the brain in the PFC that play a role in the cognitive control of behaviour - such as planning, organisation and impulse control - an 'immature' PFC was thought to lead to inadequate cognitive control, and consequently to risky and impulsive behaviour.
Crone's meta-analysis shows that neuroscientific research on the adolescent brain does not support this assumption. There is, however, consistent evidence for the finding that the emotional systems in the brain during adolescence are extra sensitive, but the use of the PFC is variable and depends primarily on what motivates adolescents. This motivation is in turn influenced by social and affective processes in the environment. This indicates that it is not a question of immaturity, but of cognitive flexibility.
Leiden Professor of Neurocognitive Psychology Crone: ‘The PFC acts as a kind of sponge that processes all the environmental influences. In practice, you see that adolescents are often well able to concentrate for long periods. In these cases, they are involved in tasks about which they are motivated, such as investigating a technical problem, for example. It is not the case that adolescents are not yet able to use the PFC effectively, but that, under the influence of social and affective processes, they often make choices that are more impulsive and more focused on the short term.'
'Such short-term behaviour is not uncommon in adolescence,' according to Crone. 'It is a period when young people are learning to distance themselves from their parents and are looking to create their own identity and find their place in their peer group. They have to experiment and explore to determine the role that best suits them.'
The adolescent brain seems, then, not so much to be inadequately equipped to plan, organise and take rational decisions, as receptive to different social influences that may be important for determining young people's motivation and goals. The social context in turn influences the development of neural systems in the brain. How this works is something that researchers are currently trying to discover.
(23 August 2012)
- Nature Reviews Neuroscience: Understanding adolescence as a period of social–affective engagement and goal flexibility
- Prof. Eveline Crone, PhD
- Institute for Psychology - Developmental and Education Psychology
- Brain & Development Lab