When You’re Older: Brain Development Through Adolescence
By: Carolyn Mish, Contributing Writer
Edited by: Name, Editor; Eve Nevelos, Editor in Chief
The assertion that maturity comes with age is very common. Adults often warn children that now, while their brains are still in early stages of development, they may act differently than adults with more life experience and precedent. There is a biological basis for these warnings: while a majority of brain development takes place in early childhood, this doesn’t mean that teenage brains are at all close to being fully formed and functioning. While the brain is physically created in utero, and grows with childhood, maturation of brain cells and functions completes around age 24.
Adolescence is defined as the transition between childhood and adulthood, typically including early puberty until the early twenties. It is during this time that a multitude of changes occur both in the body and mind, all of which are influenced by our social behavior, habits, and our physical health.
While the brain and its systems are highly complex, the prefrontal cortex is a part of the brain commonly known by people. Located at the front of the skull, the prefrontal cortex is responsible for judgement calls. It rules future predictions, consequences for behavior, planning, impulse control, regulating intense emotion, and weighing long term outcomes and rewards. Based on prior studies, increased risk for sexual and drug violence can be associated with adolescence, which is likely due to the fact that the prefrontal cortex is still in development, and is being influenced by societal and environmental factors like complex social settings and substance use. The prefrontal cortex completes development around age 25.
An important factor in learning about decision making is the difference between “hot” and “cold” cognition. Hot cognition is defined as the ability to make decisions underneath the pressure of intense emotions. Cold cognition is defined as the ability to do the same but without these emotional stakes, and from a more objective lense. By age 15, it’s known that teens can effectively weigh risk and likely outcomes of a situation using cold cognition. However, based on rates of accidents and injury in teenagers, it’s clear that this ability goes underused. It’s safe to infer that in the presence of the emotions that correspond with adolescence: a desire to be accepted, seen as “cool”, low self esteem, and peer pressure, the brain may be under too much stress to use cold cognition.
In adolescence, crucial processes take place that influence how we behave. For example, studies show that a boost in neuronal growth happens just before puberty. Neurons are brain cells that interact with each other via synapses, which connect the electrical impulses. This process improves what is referred to as neurocircuitry. Neurocircuitry can be imagined as a large system, referring to how brain cells influence and communicate with each other. Increased neurocircuitry is associated with improved decision making, multi-tasking, and problem solving, all of which are considered traits of a more developed brain. These processes take place because of the sex hormones that become available during puberty. Whether they are progesterone, estrogen, or testosterone, these hormones replenish the protective coating around brain cells and help the body regulate the normal development of the brain.
Additionally, brain chemicals called neurotransmitters are at play. Common neurotransmitters include serotonin and dopamine—they act as messengers in the brain. During the teenage years, data shows that these systems are almost entirely changed and redeveloped, influencing mood and irritability.
On the bright side, neural plasticity—or the adaptability and youth of brain cells—stays high during the teenage years. This means that brain development includes self actualization and identity. Discovering your favorite hobbies, music, TV, learning new languages and instruments, and other activities that require a lot of neural plasticity are all attainable at this age.
It’s important to realize that while your brain helps you accomplish amazing things, it still has a lot of work to do before it’s fully formed. During childhood, the brain sees huge increases in ability over the course of just a few years. While it may seem tedious, waiting out the last few years before your brain is fully developed can help you reduce your risk of harm and injury due to poor decision making.