Risk-taking behavior by teens often results in frustrated and befuddled parents. Parents struggle to understand why their child would take a risk that seems to drastically outweigh the potential reward.
The explanation may be found in a specific region of the brain called the dorsal striatum. A new study conducted by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh has identified differences in how the teenage brain operates when a potential reward is offered, in comparison to the adult brain. The findings may explain not only risky behaviors, but also explain why teens are more likely to experience problems with addiction, schizophrenia and depression.
Bita Moghaddam, study researcher at the University of Pittsburgh, explained that rewards often have a stronger role in decision making for teenagers. This explains why the responses of teenagers often seem unwise, but they are instead perceiving and reacting to a scenario differently.
The researchers conducted the study using animal models, a strategy considered effective because risk-taking behaviors observed in humans are consistent across all animal species.
The study’s objective focused not only on understanding the risk-taking functions of the brain in teenagers, but also to determine whether differences in the brain during adolescence may provide information about the susceptibility of teens to addiction and several types of mental illness. The researchers hoped that identifying differences in the brain at this age might provide insight on the prevention of some mental disorders.
The researchers taught the rats to put their noses in a hole to receive a food pellet following their detection of a tone being played. The rats each had probes attached to two brain regions in order to monitor the brain: the nucleus accumbens and the dorsal striatum.
The researchers observed a significant difference between the adult rats and the teenage rats. In the dorsal striatum, there was a higher level of activity shown in teen rats than in the adult rats.
The differences observed in the dorsal striatum may explain the risk-taking and impulsive responses teenagers have in specific situations. The authors believe that it may cause the teen to be more vulnerable to their environment, to rewards, and as a result, more vulnerable to addiction.
Further research is necessary to understand how the brain changes in the dorsal striatum as the individual transitions from teenage years to adulthood. However, the researchers believe that it is during this transition that some problems may be initiated. When the transition does not occur as it should, some individuals’ brains may respond in a way that leads to the development of a disease.