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Teen Brain Changes Bring Social Benefit but Mental Health Risk

Emerging research seeks to explain some of the changes that occur in the transition from adolescence to adulthood. Investigators discovered brain networks come ‘online’ during adolescence allowing teenagers to develop more complex adult social skills. However, the development of new neural networks also potentially puts teens at increased risk of mental illness.

Researchers from the University of Cambridge and University College London explain that adolescence is a time of major change in life, with increasing social and cognitive skills and independence, but also increased risk of mental illness.

The research paper appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

While it is clear that these changes in the mind must reflect developmental changes in the brain, it has been unclear how exactly the function of the human brain matures as people grow up from children to young adults.

The investigators collected functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) data on brain activity from 298 healthy young people, aged 14-25 years. Each participant was scanned on one to three occasions about 6 to 12 months apart. In each scanning session, the participants lay quietly in the scanner so that the researchers could analyze the pattern of connections between different brain regions while the brain was in a resting state.

The team discovered that the functional connectivity of the human brain, i.e., how different regions of the brain ‘talk’ to each other, changes in two main ways during adolescence.

Investigators found that the brain regions important for vision, movement, and other basic faculties were strongly connected at the age of 14 and became even more strongly connected by the age of 25. This was called a ‘conservative’ pattern of change, as areas of the brain that were rich in connections at the start of adolescence become even richer during the transition to adulthood.

However, the brain regions that are important for more advanced social skills, such as being able to imagine how someone else is thinking or feeling (so-called theory of mind), showed a very different pattern of change.

In these regions, connections were redistributed over the course of adolescence: connections that were initially weak became stronger, and connections that were initially strong became weaker. Investigators called this transformation a “disruptive” pattern of change, as areas that were poor in their connections became richer, and areas that were rich became poorer.

Researchers compared the fMRI results to other data on the brain, and found the network of regions that showed the disruptive pattern of change during adolescence had high levels of metabolic activity. This form of neural activation is typically associated with active remodeling of connections between nerve cells.

“From the results of these brain scans, it appears that the acquisition of new, more adult skills during adolescence depends on the active, disruptive formation of new connections between brain regions, bringing new brain networks ‘online’ for the first time to deliver advanced social and other skills as people grow older,” explains Dr Petra Vértes, joint senior author of the paper.

Professor Ed Bullmore, joint senior author of the paper, comments: “We know that depression, anxiety and other mental health disorders often occur for the first time in adolescence — but we don’t know why. These results show us that active re-modelling of brain networks is ongoing during the teenage years and deeper understanding of brain development could lead to deeper understanding of the causes of mental illness in young people.”

Nevertheless, measuring functional connectivity in the brain presents particular challenges.

“Studying brain functional connectivity with fMRI is tricky as even the slightest head movement can corrupt the data — this is especially problematic when studying adolescent development as younger people find it harder to keep still during the scan,” reports Dr František Váša, the study leader.

“Here, we used three different approaches for removing signatures of head movement from the data, and obtained consistent results, which made us confident that our conclusions are not related to head movement, but to developmental changes in the adolescent brain.”

Source: University of Cambridge

Teen Brain Changes Bring Social Benefit but Mental Health Risk

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2020). Teen Brain Changes Bring Social Benefit but Mental Health Risk. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 25, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 14 Feb 2020 (Originally: 14 Feb 2020)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 14 Feb 2020
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