Student Well-Being

Examining the Brains of Teenage Rebels

By Debra Viadero — August 26, 2009 1 min read

A growing number of studies have begun to suggest that teens and young adults engage in risky behavior because the frontal portions of their brains—the parts that control executive function—aren’t yet mature. That doesn’t happen until young people reach their mid-20s.

Well, experts might want to rethink that theory, according to a study described today in Science Daily. In the study, researchers from Emory University and the Emory University School of Medicine used a new imaging technique to track the growth of white matter over a period of three years in the brains of 91 adolescents. Up until now, most such studies have focused on the brain’s gray matter, which is where the neurons are located. The white matter is what connects the neurons and it becomes denser and more organized as the brain matures.

What the researchers found was that teens who were more prone to engage in dangerous, thrill-seeking, or rebellious activities tended to have more mature-looking white matter than their more risk-aversive peers.

That was a surprise to researchers. Reflecting on the findings, the lead researcher, Dr. Gregory Berns, suggests that such activities may actually require the sophistication of a more adult-like brain:

Society is a lot different now than it was 100 years ago when teens were expected to go to work and raise a family," says Berns. "You could make the case that in this country, biological capacity shows up long before the wisdom that comes with time is fully developed."

Amen to that.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.