Don't Blame the Teenage Brain for Risk-Taking Pitt Prof's Research Questions Traditional Thinking on Matter

By Byko, Laura | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), February 15, 2015 | Go to article overview

Don't Blame the Teenage Brain for Risk-Taking Pitt Prof's Research Questions Traditional Thinking on Matter


Byko, Laura, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


The traditional neurological explanation for why teens take more risks could be wrong, according to new research from a University of Pittsburgh neuroscientist.

The adolescent tendency to engage in high-risk behaviors is often attributed to an underdeveloped prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for decision-making, planning and reasoning. That attribution, said Beatriz Luna, Staunton Professor of Psychiatry and Pediatrics at the Pitt School of Medicine, is a myth that needs to be dispelled. Ms. Luna presented her work Saturday at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in San Jose, Calif.

In fact, the prefrontal cortex in teens is not that different from that of an adult, though refinement of it occurs throughout adolescence. For teens, it is like a new car. They have all the necessary equipment, but it takes some time before they are able to use it maturely, said Ms. Luna, who obtained her Ph.D. in developmental psychology from Pitt.

However, the limbic system, one of the parts of the brain that controls emotion, motivation and behavior that is tied to survival, becomes hyperactive during adolescence. The rapidly changing motivation center can overrule reasoning that occurs in the prefrontal cortex, resulting in a teenager's tendency to seek instant gratification.

Ms. Luna's team also found that the basic architecture of different networks in the brain is completed before adolescence sets in, but the way those networks talk to each other is honed during the teenage years. …

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