Although the reward-sensitive brains of adolescents can sometimes lead to risky behavior, there is a very positive side: It makes learning a lot easier, according to a new Dutch study published in the journal Nature Communications.
By the time young people reach their late teens, many have tested their limits and some have pushed well beyond. For example, many teens have dabbled in alcohol or drug misuse or have engaged in reckless driving or other risky behaviors.
This is due in part to a greater amount of activity in the corpus striatum, a small area deep in the brain. Previous research has shown that the corpus striatum is the part of the brain in young people that is more responsive to receiving rewards.
For the new study, scientists at Leiden University in the Netherlands have shown that this increased activity in the corpus striatum has a very positive side as well.
“The adolescent brain is very sensitive to feedback,” said Dr. Sabine Peters, assistant professor of developmental and educational psychology and lead author of the article. “That makes adolescence the ideal time to acquire and retain new information.”
Over a period of five years, 736 magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans were conducted on the brains of 300 participants between the ages of eight and 29. According to Peters, the data set is about 10 times larger than that of similar studies.
As subjects had an MRI, they were asked to solve a memory game to which the researchers gave immediate feedback on their performance levels.
“It showed that adolescents responded keenly to educational feedback,” Peters said. “If the adolescent received useful feedback, then you saw the corpus striatum being activated. This was not the case with less pertinent feedback, for example, if the test person already knew the answer.
“The stronger your brain recognizes that difference, the better the performance in the learning task. Brain activation could even predict learning performance two years into the future.”
Researchers have known for some time that adolescent brains are more “successful” when they receive the same reward as small children or adults. For example, it has already been proven that use of drugs and/or alcohol in the teenage years is tied to powerful activation in the brain’s reward system.
“It explains why adolescents and young adults go on a voyage of discovery, with all the positive and negative consequences that entails. You see the same behavior in many animal species, including rats and mice,” Peters said.
Source: Leiden University