Tuesday, December 26, 2006

The teen brain - a work in progress and driving implications :


An overwhelming amount of research is slowly bringing to light the fact that the teen brain is very much a work in progress and a lot of the 'neuronal sculpting and pruning' that takes place as the child matures through the teen years is incomplete at least until the age of 21 to 22... I remember as a teen (about 20 years back), I used to sneak into a lower shelf in my family cupboard and 'help myself' to money kept there to to buy cool jeans. For some reason my father did not confront me, but one day the goose that laid the golden eggs stopped replenishing itself and I often wondered if my father 'noticed'. I also remember sneaking out on my father’s motorcycle a couple of times without his knowledge and without any sort of a valid license to drive. I was 15 then. Looking back in retrospect, it seems stupid and unreasonable to assume that my father would not 'notice'. Research can now conclusively tell us that the teen brain is undergoing a huge amount of structural changes. In fact the following have been conclusively proved:

1. The first areas to mature (e.g., extreme front and back of the brain) are those with the most basic functions, such as processing the senses and movement.
2. Areas involved in spatial orientation and language (parietal lobes) follow.
3. Areas with more advanced functions -- integrating information from the senses, reasoning and other "executive" functions (prefrontal cortex) - mature last.

The actions outlined in 3 above takes place post puberty and extends over 8-10 years (until they are 21 or 22)... In fact actions that are directed by the pre-frontal cortex involve critical integrative functions like organize plans, generate ideas, set priorities, form strategies, control impulses, and allocate attention. In retrospect all of this was what I lacked when I helped myself to get the jeans and drove outside on my motorcycle in unbridled frivolity.

In fact a couple of months back, there was the case of a teen who texted her suicide notes as she drove her Mercedes into a oncoming Daewoo. The mother of three in the Daewoo died as a result while the teen survived. Highly irrational behavior like this can be rationalized a bit more when we understand that Louise Egan Brunstad's (later charged with murder as an adult) neuronal connections were not sculpted or pruned enough for her to think or plan or strategize her next course of actions in light of her current conditions. Of course, this opens up a bunch of ethical arguments again - do not blame the child, blame the brain - but nonetheless brings to light the fact that we need to pay closer attention to teen brains in formative modes and maybe legislate that actions that require a surprisingly large amount of planning and thinking - like driving for example should maybe be the purview of 21 year olds instead of 16-18 year old...

Of course, some of this might be a little extreme, but Louise’s case above and a bunch of other similar cases may have a case in point.

Related papers of interest:

The Adolescent Brain: A Work in Progress - A good article on changes going on in the teen brain with a focus on preventing teen pregnancy

What’s Going On In There? How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life By Lise Eliot, Ph.D.

What Makes Teens Tick? - Article in TIME on the teen brain...

Cruel and Unusual Punishment: The Juvenile Death Penalty Adolescence, Brain Development and Legal Culpability - A good flyer put out by the American Bar Association that talks about law and the teen brain and the ramifications

Neuronal Regulation: A Mechanism For Synaptic Pruning During Brain Maturation by Gal Chechik and Isaac Meilijson
- a little mathematical, but a good read nevertheless

Are Teens Driving Safer? By Pilar S. Marin and Brett V. Brown, Ph.D, Child Trends

The First Three Years of Life and the Early Adolescent: Influences of Biology and Behavior - Implications for Child Rearing by Donald E. Greydanus, MD; Helen D. Pratt, PhD; Dilip R. Patel, MD - A CME review article

Teen driving - should states impose tougher restrictions?

3 comments:

The Artist said...

Enjoyed the read. Am staying in a house with a lot of teenagers at present, with best wishes, The Artist

Sunflower Optimism said...

Hmmm, being the parent of an 18 yo and a 21 yo - yep, I could have told you this. It is truly amazing to see the changes that occur over the years. I think as the brain changes, and behavior changes with it, we call it "maturing." This post explains it all rather nicely. Will have to look up some of the links, when I have time.

Just you wait until your two year old hits those teen years! LOL

Sunil said...

You know what, I should have just asked you... Just kidding. I am glad you enjoyed that post...