By: Robin Donaldson, Chief Operating Officer, Indiana Youth Services Association & NSPN Advisory Board member
Adolescence is defined as the transition from childhood to adulthood and encompasses the broad developmental tasks of establishing a unique identity and developing one’s own autonomy and independence. Brain development also undergoes unique changes during adolescence that can explain many behaviors specific to this developmental period.
Brain development continues well into the 20’s and the last area to develop is the prefrontal cortex, responsible for higher cognitive and emotional functioning. Prefrontal cortex development is largely influenced by experience and this allows us to directly impact adolescent brain development.
After a preadolescent cellular growth spurt in the brain, a pruning process begins in adolescence. The adolescent loses approximately three percent of gray matter in the prefrontal lobes. This pruning works on a “use it or lose it” principle so it is important to repeatedly expose young people to the skills and knowledge needed to become successful adults. Repeated use and exposure will strengthen the neural connections that support these skills so they are not lost during the pruning process.
The speed and efficiency of neural communication is determined by neural sensitivity known as long-term potentiation. Under normal situations, long-term potentiation is highest during adolescence. However, adolescents face many factors that can inhibit long-term potentiation. Things like alcohol and substance use, chronic stress, sleep deprivation, and stimulants interfere with long-term potentiation and slow neural communication. We can help teens minimize exposure to these risk factors through education.
Due to the pattern of brain development, teenagers have greater difficulty reading the emotions of others, a function of the prefrontal lobes, and experience emotions at greater intensity than adults due to a reactive limbic system. We can help develop the neural pathways between the limbic center and prefrontal lobes by helping teens examine and identify emotions (their own and of others) and helping them learn to “put a brake” on their emotions and stop and think before reacting. Activities such as “emotion charades” allows teens the opportunity to both recognize and express emotions.
Research now demonstrates a significant link between exercise and brain functioning and development. Exercise increases blood flow and oxygen level in the brain and this is necessary for optimal cellular growth and function. Exercise also impacts neurotransmitter levels in the brain that can serve to help teens better regulate emotional control.
Knowledge is power and teens should be educated about how the choices that they make during adolescence can have lifelong impacts.
This blog is the final post in a three-part series on adolescent brain development. Click on the links below to read parts one and two: