Social context important for how adolescent brain works

Risk-taking and sensation-seeking are typical behaviour for adolescents. Research by Leiden psychologist Barbara Braams and her colleagues published in NeuroImage shows that the social context also plays an important role.

Adolescent brain responds differently

The research subjects played 'heads or tails', a game based on gambling.

The research subjects played 'heads or tails', a game based on gambling.

Braams et al. studied the development of the reward system in the adolescent brain. They looked at whether there are differences between adolescents and children, and between adolescents and adults. And there are differences. Previous research has already shown that the reward system in adolescents responds differently to rewards from that of children and adults. The research findings point in two directions: some research showed an increase in activation in the reward centre (a pleasant emotion) while other showed a reduction in this area. Braams and her colleagues wanted to know the details. 


‘Heads or tails’

The researchers scanned 300 child, adolescent and adult brains in an MR scanner while the test subject was playing a simple gambling game ('heads or tails'). With this experiment they were able to win money, real money, for their family, their best friend and someone from their age group whom they didn't like.  But they could also lose the money again.

Activity dependent on social context

Barbara Braams

Barbara Braams

The research showed that activation in the reward centre reaches a peak at around 15-16 years: at that point stimuli are experienced much more strongly. It also appears that the reward centre is not always operating at a high level, but that activation depends on the social context. For adolescents the peak is highest if they can win money for themselves. Adults, on the other hand, find it as pleasurable to win money for their best friend as for themselves.  Boys and girls show an interesting difference: in girls the reward system is activated if they win for a very good friend. With boys, winning for a very good friend shows no such effect. 


Gambling is taking risks

'Even in a lab situation, gambling involves taking risks if the test subjects can win or lose real money,' Braams explains. 'That's what makes this research socially significant: most accidents where adolescents are injured are the result of risky behaviour.'

Follow-up study

This is the first study on the development of the reward centre in a group of young people aged between 8 and 25.  The hypothesis is confirmed that activation of the reward centre reaches a peak in adolescence, compared with childhood and adulthood. A next step is to make a more detailed study of the reward system. Braams: ‘We want to see whether young people who say they are prepared to take more risks also show heightened activity in the reward system during the gambling activity.'

See also

Barbara R. Braams, Sabine Peters, Jiska S. Peper, Berna Güro ğ lu, Eveline A. Crone: Gambling for self, friends, and antagonists: Differential contributions of affective and social brain regions on adolescent reward processing. (in press)

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Last Modified: 09-07-2014