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Teenage Brains
Photo: Margie Hurwich
Scientists are continually gaining new insights into the remarkable changes in teenager’s brains that may help to explain why the teen years are so hard on young people—and on their parents. From ages 11-14 a young person loses a substantial fraction of the connections between cells in the part of the brain that enable him or her to think clearly and make good decisions.

According to Alison Gopnik, a professor of child development at the University of California—Berkley, this loss clears out, or “prunes” unneeded wiring to make way for more efficient information-processing in adults. “Ineffective or weak connections are pruned in much the same way a gardener would prune a tree or bush, giving the plant the desired shape,” says Gopnik.

Like teenage pimples and body hair, changes inside the head can be upsetting. Jay Giedd, a child development expert at the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Maryland, calls the teenage brain “a work in progress.” He adds that teens process emotions differently than adults.

Moody, Uncooperative, Irresponsible

To figure out why teenagers are often moody, uncooperative and irresponsible scientists have made images of their brains using electroencephalograms, which record brain waves. They also use functional magnetic resonance imaging, which measures activity in various regions of the brain. From these studies scientists can show that a major rearrangement of brain structure and function takes place during early adolescence. This may explain why adolescents are more prone to react with gut instinct when they process emotions.

The frontal lobes of the brain, which are responsible for high-level reasoning and decision making, are not fully mature until adulthood (some scientists even say late 30’s).

“From these studies we know that remarkable changes occur in the brain during the teen years,” says Giedd. “They also demonstrate what every parent can confirm: The teenage brain is a very complicated and dynamic area, one that is not easily understood.”

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By Brenda Forbes Dickerson. Copyright © 2008 by GraceNotes. All rights reserved. Use of this material is subject to usage guidelines.

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