Studying the Teen Brain

Jul 17, 2014

Credit Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute

Even though every adult today was once a teenager, the teen brain remains a mystery to almost everyone.  Especially when it comes to risk taking.   What makes some teens daredevils and others, not-so-much?

That’s what psychologists at The Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute will be looking into in a new study that will last three years. 

Remember a young Tom Cruise in the movie Risky Business where he’s racing his father’s Porsche around Chicago even though he was warned not too?  He’s lovin’ it, because it’s forbidden.

But what makes risk so tempting for some teens and not others? Virginia Tech researchers are interested in How the brain develops and how differential trajectories of development can lead to risky or not risky behaviors in adolescents.

Jungmeen Kim-Spoon and Brooks King Cassus

Psychologists Brooks King Cassus and Jungmeen Kim-Spoon will look at one-hundred-fifty 13 and 14 year olds over the next four years to get a sense of their environment, their background, their cognitive skills and even how their brains function in order to get a better understanding of what makes some teens take dangerous risks.

"We want to emphasize that all risk taking is not bad. There are some important and exciting behaviors and some are not.  So I think it depends on where these adolescents] take risks and get hooked," says Jungmeen Kim –Spoon.

"They need to take the risks and make trials and errors to learn. So that’s why adolescents are more likely to learn to learn better than adults."

If risk taking behavior is part of what makes teens good learners, not much is known about exactly how that works. But scientists have some idea of why the adolescent brain is so different from the brains of children or adults. It has to do with how the brain develops from the age of 13 to 17.  Particulary in the region involving response to reward.

"Those regions really go through a fast maturation early in adolescence, say 13, 14 years of age whereas the regions of the brain that are often involved in cognitive control including areas of prefrontal cortex have slower development all the way through late adolescence into early adulthood."

King -Cassus says it’s the mismatch during that growth phase that can determine which kids will become risk takers. And even though, as we said, risk in itself, isn’t necessarily a bad thing, one thing is sure, it does have consequences and when it comes to young people eager to take risks, without the experience of those consequences, well…

"Even if you tell what these outcomes might be and what they’re going to feel like, they need to go through a developmental process where they learn what those contingencies are and this is something that adults have a better handle on but during this critical time in their development they first get a chance to take these risks," he says.

King Cassus and Kim-Spoon are now recruiting 13 and 14 year olds from southwestern Virginia for the study.  Along with their primary care givers, they would go once a year over the next 4 years for a day of interviews, some video game playing, and brain imaging. Participants will be paid around two hundred dollars for each session, and there will be lunch and snacks provided. The teenagers will also get a CD with an image of their brains. The adolescent brain study sessions will be held at  the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute sites in Roanoke and Blacksburg.
Click here for more information about the study.