This month’s National Geographic Magazine highlights new scientific understanding of adolescent brain development and the neurological changes that occur with adolescence. Although the brain doesn’t grow much between the ages of 12 and 25, massive changes lead to a faster and more sophisticated brain by adulthood.
During adolescence, axons, the nerve fibers used to send signals between neurons, become insulated with a fatty substance, myelin, in order to boost the axon’s transmission speed. Heavily used synapses grow much stronger. At the same time the brain goes through a process known as synaptic pruning, whereby infrequently used synapses wither allowing the brain to become more efficient.
Studies of impulse control show that although teens at age 15 can perform as well as adults if motivated, they were less able than adults to use regions of the brain that help them resist impulses. Among those performing the test at age 20, these regions of the brain were as easily accessed as adults. However, adults shouldn’t look at adolescents as neurologically inferior.
The article also states that from an evolutionary perspective teen brains are “exquisitely sensitive, highly adaptable creature[s] wired almost perfectly for the job of moving from the safety of home into the complicated world outside.” Thrill-seeking behaviors by adolescents, which peak at age 15, leads teens to have an openness to new and exciting experiences. Changes during adolescence also lead teens to seek out people of their own age, building important relationships for success in adulthood.
Schubert Center Faculty Associate Andrew Garner recently spoke at the County Commissioners Association of Ohio about adolescent brain development as part of a panel organized by Voices for Ohio’s Children. He was accompanied by Child Policy Director Gabriella Celeste. View their presentation. Gabriella Celeste will also be speaking at an upcoming Schubert Center event on Tuesday October 11 on her involvement in juvenile justice reform in Ohio. Learn more about this event.
Little known fact: Schubert Center graduate assistant Sarah C. Miller is from Austin, Texas, where National Geographic photographer Kitra Cahana followed teens for a year in the photographs accompanying the story.