Risk-taking in adolescence: where does the brain come into it? By alisonberto

Risk-taking in adolescence: where does the brain come into it?

Why do adolescents drive too fast, or without a helmet? And why do they take more risks when they are with their friends? Can we explain this by looking at adolescent brain development?

Adolescents take more risks than children or adults. Risks may include driving too fast, drinking too much alcohol, or engaging in unsafe sexual behavior. Most of this risk-taking behavior occurs in groups. At a party, for instance, adolescents may drink more than intended because their friends are doing it. Why do adolescents have a heightened propensity to take risks and can we explain this behavior from a neural perspective?

Risk-taking is most likely linked to reward sensitivity. Research shows that adolescents report more sensitivity to rewards than adults. At the neural level it has been hypothesized that the reward areas in the adolescent brain respond differently to rewards than do those of children or adults. However, the directionality of the effects has been subject to debate. Some studies have found overactivation of reward areas, whereas other studies have found underactivation.

In a recent study we investigated reward-related responses in the brain when children, adolescents, and adults took part in a game in which they could win or lose money. Participants were lying in an MRI scanner when participating in this game, allowing us to monitor brain responses to winning and losing. Sometimes they won or lost for themselves, but they could also win or lose for their best friend, or for someone they disliked. In this study, we scanned 300 participants, whose ages spanned the whole range from childhood to adulthood.

We found that reward-related areas in the brain are more active during adolescence than in childhood and adulthood. This means that when adolescents receive a reward such as money during an experiment, the reward areas respond highly. However, the reward area of adolescents is not always hyperactive. When winning for a friend the activation in the reward area is similar to when winning for oneself, but when winning for a disliked other the reward areas are not active. This shows that neural activation to rewards is modulated by social context. These findings are in line with previous research that showed that when peers are present adolescents take more risks in a driving game and show more activation in the striatum than when peers are not present.

Exactly how the interplay between neural activation, reward sensitivity, and peer influence results in risk-taking behavior is not yet known. This should be investigated further in future research.

1 Comment


I agree it really helps thngis go better when parents listen, but I have some concern about thinking that meana your teen will talk to you about all of his concerns. The waters run particularly choppy when a teen violates parental values. You asked us to recall our own teen years. I know I had a father I could talk to, who listened well, I knew he cherished me, and wanted me to be my own person. Would I talk to him about all thngis? No. I kept back the thngis I knew he might find troublesome. Things like driving my boy friend's car before I had a learning permit, getting pickled on vodka the first year I worked at a sleep away camp, how far my boy friend and I went without going all the way, and heaven forbid if we did go all the way. Most of the teens I worked with as a foster parent, and later as the Director of Mental Health Crisis Teams, as well as the young adults I met teaching human behavior courses admitted to picking and choosing what to share and almost all kept back something or out right lied. My graduate students were the most open about keeping back much. My own sons, now grown and with children of their own, love regaling their father and I with the thngis we didn't know. Both also think we were great parents always ready to help, listen and eager for them to follow their own paths.Part of growing up is doing your own thing knowing your parents might not approve and then protecting yourself and your parents by keeping some thngis private. So parents need to listen, but should not be fooled into thinking teens tell all. Nor should parents carry burdens of guilt and be told they were not listening well enough if a good kid is found doing bad thngis.