Importance of Brain-relevant Changes during Adolescence: Analytical Essay
Being a very important transition phase between childhood and adulthood, adolescence is marked by significant physical, social, cognitive and emotional changes. Due to these changes, the behaviour of an adolescent is different from the adult. This demeanor may be considered as irresponsible, emotional and sometimes even risk-taking and reckless. Hormones often get the blame but they’re not the only factor at play. By understanding the nature and processes of physiological and psychological transformations during adolescence, it becomes clear how these changes affect cognition both in adults and adolescents and most importantly how these transformations may lead to unfortunate deviations from normal development. One of the most salient characterizations of adolescence is a steady increase in executive functioning. Children during adolescence increasingly master the ability to control their thoughts and actions to make them consistent with internal goals. Executive functions are considered to be central to human cognition, and therefore adolescence can be seen as a period of significant cognitive advancements.
The pre-frontal cortex undergoes significant changes during adolescence is responsible for complex and abstract thoughts, for future planning, and for controlling attention and behaviour. This is why adolescents are often impulsive without considering the consequences, and seem to live in the moment, why they often find it hard to plan ahead and experience difficulties with scheduling. At the same time deep structures in the brain that process emotions and rewards are affected by the hormonal changes of puberty. This can cause adolescents to be highly emotional and focus on things that give them instant gratification like social interaction, sensation seeking and risk taking.
The starting point for adolescence is usually set as the onset of puberty by most researchers in the field. The end of adolescence is harder to define due to significant cultural variations. However, in Western countries the end of the teenage years represents a working consensus. In general adolescents are more sociable, form more complex and hierarchical peer relationships and are more sensitive to acceptance and rejection by their peers. Although the factors that underlie these social changes are versatile, one of the main causes is the development of the social brain (the term “social brain” here refers to the network of brain regions that are involved in understanding others). Different behavioral and neuroimaging studies have examined executive function improvements in adolescence. The results demonstrate adolescence as a time period of significant advancements in executive control functions, but it is also marked by struggles with social competence, affective input or social context. Recent functional neuroimaging studies of social cognitive development have shown increased activity in a number of prefrontal areas between childhood and adolescence. However, the activity then decreases between early adolescence and adulthood. This decrease in prefrontal activity during adolescence might be related to structural development in this area (the elimination of unused synapses). The volume of cortical grey matter seems to increase reaching peak levels at approximately the time of puberty onset, after which it gradually declines. This applies to the frontal and parietal lobes but not for the temporal lobes. The volume of white matter increases linearly throughout childhood and adolescence, with the maximum volume often reached as late as the third decade of life.
Teenage behavior is often condemned and judged. This is why most recent approach in the scientific research of adolescent development has always had as part of its goal describing, explaining, predicting, and ameliorating problematic behavior.
Initially, changes in cognitive functions during adolescence have been examined in the context of improving executive functions. Studies show that during childhood and adolescence children gain increasing capacity for inhibition and mental flexibility as the result of, for example, improvements in the ability to switch back and forth between multiple tasks.
Some of the earliest empirical studies on cognitive development during adolescence investigated the effect of puberty on face recognition on girls as this process is very important for cognition and it can affect learning when receiving information from, say, a teacher. The results were surprising showing that performance on face-recognition tasks improved steadily during the first decade of life, but this was followed by a decline at approximately age 12. A later study showed that mid-pubertal girls performed worse than prepubertal or girls that had reached puberty. In addition, the findings show that while adults modulate brain activity based on attention demands, adolescents modulate activity based on the emotional nature of a stimulus. The results of these studies suggest that the neural basis of the ability to pay attention to a non-salient stimulus in the presence of emotionally evocative, attention-grabbing stimuli is still maturing between adolescence and adulthood.
Mentalizing is another process that that enables us to understand other people’s actions and behavior in terms of the underlying mental states that drive them. A significant finding across the studies investigating the neural correlates of mentalizing in adolescents is that dorsomedial prefrontal cortex (DMPFC) associated with mentalizing appears to be more active in adolescents than adults. One recent study implicated several mentalizing regions, such as DMPFC and temporo-parietal junction (TPJ), in making reflected self-appraisals (reporting what you think others think about you. Remarkably, adolescents used these same mentalizing regions during direct self-appraisals significantly more than adults, whose DMPFC and TPJ were not engaged. This suggests the sociocognitive processes involved in mentalizing contribute to self-perception in a unique way during adolescence.
The anterior-to-posterior developmental shift in brain regions required in mentalizing has also been supported by research examining social emotion processing. It is necessary to compare adolescent and adult processing of social emotions because, unlike basic affective states like joy and anger, phenomena like guilt and embarrassment require mentalizing. A later study in adolescents (11–18 years) and adults (23–32 years) showed that, once again, DMPFC was more active in adolescents than adults.
Adolescence is also period of life in which the sense of self-concept changes profoundly as person becomes increasingly self-conscious and more aware of others’ opinions. Recent empirical research has focused on neurocognitive aspects of self-processing in adolescence and has pointed to the fact that self-reflection continues its development during adolescence and integrates to a degree with one’s own and others’ mental states. The self-concept is defined as how one perceives oneself and also includes the “social self-concept” that is one’s perceptions of how others perceive them. Some aspects of self-concept perform from early age – even newborn babies seem to have some forms of ‘implicit self-awareness’ and they show signs of being able to distinguish between self and other. Recent structural MRI studies have shown that brain regions involved in self-related processing (DMPFC) continue to develop during the second decade of life showing that the amount of white matter in various cortical regions increases between childhood and adulthood. Neuroanatomical changes have been proposed to contribute to the functional changes (increased prefrontal activity) between adolescence and adulthood. The continued axonal myelination and pruning of synapses in adolescence might render the neuronal circuitry more efficient so that less activity would be required to perform a given task.
Reflecting on one’s own thoughts, or on personality trait adjectives that describe oneself is another aspect in adolescent development. Recent developmental neuroimaging studies have begun to look at the neural correlates of self-reflection in children and adolescents to compare the judgmental strategies of adolescents and adults. A recent study compared young adolescents (mean age 10 years) and adults (mean age 26 years) on a task of self against social knowledge retrieval. Participants were scanned while they judged whether certain phrases attributed to the self-condition or a familiar other. Adolescents activated the DMPFC to a greater extent than did adults during the self-condition while adults activated the lateral temporal cortex more than adolescents did during the self-condition. It was suggested that adults use stored self-knowledge when performing the task more than adolescents. By contrast, adolescents might rely more on self-reflective processing in the moment. This indicates that when making self-referential judgments adolescents and adults use different neurocognitive strategies.
Adolescents might increasingly use the self as the basis for judging others as the self-concept becomes more coherent with age. Increased awareness of others’ perspectives during adolescence might also be related to the “imaginary audience” (this term describes the phenomenon whereby adolescents believe that others are constantly observing and evaluating them, even if this is not actually the case). It is suggested that this phenomenon results from a combination of two processes. First, adolescents need to develop their own identity as separate from their parents and as they begin to question who they are and how they fit in, they might become increasingly self-conscious. Second, the development of social perspective in adolescents makes them increasingly aware that others have the capacity to evaluate them which may subsequently lead them to overestimate the extent to which this actually occurs. Importantly, studies conducted more recently show that the imaginary audience peaks in adolescence but persists into young adulthood, and that even older adults exhibit some phenomena associated with it.
Overall changes in self-concept might contribute to heightened self-consciousness and susceptibility to peer pressure that are behavioural phenomena typical in adolescence.
The changes that inevitably occur during adolescence are usually beneficial and optimize the brain for the challenges of adulthood, but they can unfortunately cause a vulnerability to certain types of psychopathology. Although most teenagers successfully navigate the transition from being a dependent child to being an adult member of society, adolescence is also a time of increasing incidence of several classes of psychiatric illness, including anxiety and mood disorders, psychosis, eating disorders, personality disorders and substance abuse. The pathophysiology of these disorders is mostly arising from deviations of the maturational changes that normally occur in the adolescent brain. The occurrence of certain psychopathologies is probably related to anomalies or exaggerations of typical adolescent maturation processes alongside with psychosocial factors (for example, school and relationships) or biological environmental factors (for example, pubertal hormonal changes and drugs abuse). Below is the brief review of the most common disorders that emerge during adolescence.
Schizophrenia is a common disorder; it typically begins in adolescence or early adulthood. With a lifetime prevalence of approximately 1% it is characterized by unusual beliefs and experiences, delusions and hallucinations (they are termed positive symptoms), social withdrawal and flat affect (negative symptoms), and cognitive impairment in executive functions. Early development of schizophrenia, even before or after puberty, is linked to more serious symptoms. The ability to think abstractly develops during puberty, allowing sophisticated logic to be applied to social and interpersonal processes. It is believed by some researches that schizophrenia might be a consequence of an exaggeration of the typical synaptic elimination that takes place during adolescence. There is direct evidence of a decrease in the number of synapses and other neural elements in schizophrenia that comes from postmortem studies.
Adolescents are more likely to try drugs than adults. Adult substance abuse disorders usually begin in adolescence, but they may be accompanied by behavioral problems and poor adjustment in childhood. Certain personality traits, such as a high level of novelty seeking and a low level of harm avoidance, are significant risk factors for drug use. Risk-taking and reward-seeking behaviors in adolescents could be linked to heightened reward sensitivity, according to some researchers. Adolescent exposure to substances of abuse can increase the risk of developing addictive disorders later in life.
Affective disorders, such as major depression, are common and serious adolescent disorders. Their onset in adolescence is linked to more extreme and debilitating manifestations of these illnesses. In puberty and infancy, anxiety symptoms often precede depression. The superior temporal gyrus, the ventral prefrontal cortex, and the amygdala have also been shown to have anatomical abnormalities in structural MRI studies of adolescents with anxiety and affective disorders. Depressed and anxious adolescents had abnormal amygdala responses to social stimuli, according to an fMRI study conducted recently. In conclusion, rapid alterations in motivation and reward systems, as well as major changes in hormones and hormonal receptors, can all contribute to the onset of anxiety and depressive disorders during adolescence.
There is still much to be discovered in the knowledge of adolescent behavior and disorder. Future research and study might enable us to further our understanding of mental health during adolescence.
In summary, adolescence is a period of life when a person is extremely vulnerable. Hormonal, physiological, and psychological changes that occur in human body during adolescence are on one hand extremely important for development, but on the other cause plenty of stress for a child. A huge role is played by the environment: teachers, parents and friends may be able to notice in time if something goes wrong, if they are attentive to the child.
Despite of all the uncomfortableness of adolescence it is a major part of cognitive development of a human being. Peer experiences and cultural factors, as well as a genetically defined hormonal milieu, are likely to affect social behavior during adolescence. There is strong evidence pointing to the importance of neuronal maturation in the development of social cognition during adolescence as the brain matures significantly during adolescence. Future studies may look at how the developing brain deals with sociocultural experiences in adolescents’ environments.
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