If you’ve ever wondered why there are so many ups and downs in your teenager’s moods- there’s a very good reason; their brain is still developing. Brain scans from a research team at the University of Cambridge identified the areas of the brain that change the most during the teen years. It’s no surprise that areas associated with complex thought and decision-making are the ones going through a growth spurt during this time.
The scientists also discovered a link between teenage brain development and mental illness, such as schizophrenia.
The team from Cambridge's department of psychiatry scanned the brains of 300 people between the ages of 14 and 24.
They found that basic functions such as vision, hearing and movement were fully developed by adolescence. However, complex thinking processes and decision-making were still in a growth stage.
These areas are nerve centers with lots of connections to and from other key areas.
You can think of the brain as a global airline network that's made up of small infrequently used airports and huge hubs like Heathrow where there is very high traffic.
The brain uses a similar set up to co-ordinate our thoughts and actions.
During adolescence, this network of big hubs is consolidated and strengthened. It's a bit like how Heathrow or JFK have become gradually busier over the years.
Researchers found that genes involved in the “hub” were similar to those associated with mental illnesses, including schizophrenia.
The discovery is in line with the observation that many mental disorders develop during adolescence, according to researcher Dr Kirstie Whitaker.
"We have shown a pathway from the biology of cells in the area through to how people who are in their late teenage years might then have their first episode of psychosis," she told the BBC.
Genetics are not the only reason for mental illnesses. Older studies have also linked stress during childhood and the teenage years as a possible contributor. Recent findings have shown an association between maltreatment, abuse and neglect and brain development during childhood and adolescence. In addition, these types of stressors may also contribute to the emergence of mental illness.
Lead researcher, Professor Ed Bullmore, whose work was funded by the Wellcome Trust, believes the discovery of a biological link between teenage brain development and the onset of mental illness might help researchers identify those most at risk of becoming ill.
"As we understand more about what puts people at risk for schizophrenia, that gives us an opportunity to try to identify individuals that are at risk of becoming schizophrenic in the foreseeable future, the next two to three years, and perhaps to offer some treatment then that could be helpful in preventing the onset of clinical symptoms. "
The study also sheds light on the mood and behavioral changes experienced by teenagers during normal brain development.
"The regions that are changing most are those associated with complex behavior and decision making," says Dr. Whitaker.
"It shows that teenagers are on a journey of becoming an adult and becoming someone who is able to pull together all these bits of information.
This is a really important stage to go through. You wouldn't want to be a child all your life.
This is a powerful and important stage that you have to go through to be the best and the most capable adult that you can be."
The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.
Story source: Pallab Ghosh, http://www.bbc.com/news/health-36887224