By Dr. Jan Hittelman

Thanks to the development of Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) technology, we have new important information regarding brain development in adolescence. Prior to this research, which has occurred over the last fifteen years, it was believed that brain development was for the most part completed in early childhood. In fact, there is a second period of profound brain development that occurs during adolescence. This process begins around age eleven and continues until the mid-twenties.

One of the last parts of the brain to develop is the Prefrontal Cortex. To better understand behaviors observed in adolescents, consider the functions of the Prefrontal Cortex: impulse control, setting priorities, planning and organizational skills, decision-making, empathy and insight.
We also now know that the changes in adolescent brain development have significant implications regarding substance abuse. Another brain pathway that is developing in adolescence connects the Prefrontal Cortex to the midbrain reward/pleasure system. Research shows that teens and adults process reward stimuli differently; adolescents react much more intensely to novel experiences, making these experiences (e.g. drug use, sexual behavior, etc.) more reinforcing. Unfortunately, there is also evidence that substance use can have much more devastating effects on adolescent brain development as compared to adults. For example, studies at Duke University show that alcohol use in adolescence results in larger impairments in learning and more widespread brain damage than in adults (White, 2001). In addition, “youth who reported first using alcohol before age 15 are more than five times as likely to report being an alcoholic compared to persons who first used alcohol at age 21 or older” (SAMSHA, 2004).

Coinciding with and mirroring the adolescent’s profound changes in brain development are the significant psychosocial tasks of adolescence, which include: establishing an identity and a set of ethical and moral principles; reasoning and abstract thinking skills; developing autonomy (the shift from dependence to independence); heightened importance of peer acceptance; adjusting to increased school achievement demands; establish satisfying relationships with peers; and sexuality issues.

No wonder adolescence is such a wild ride for teens and parents alike!