16 September 2007

Teenage Risk-Taking: Causes and Explanations

If teenagers drink too much alcohol or take psychoactive drugs in excessive quantities, they risk life-long damage to their ultimate cognitive capacity. Teenagers typically engage in risky behaviour. An interesting question is whether the risky behaviour is caused by society's misguided restrictions on teen activity, or by the lack of activity in the still-developing prefrontal brain regions, or both?
Plenty of adolescent behaviors are annoying, but others can be dangerous or even potentially deadly-- like substance abuse and unprotected sex. Brain researcher Monique Ernst points out that teenagers' propensity for thrill-seeking doesn't just come from having more independence, exposure to risky behaviors, or peer pressure.

"This behavior doesn't come from the environment only," she says. "It is actually very much governed by changes that happen in the brain as the adolescents grow."

Ernst, a researcher and clinician in the National Institute of Mental Health's (NIMH) Mood and Anxiety Disorders Program Branch, says in spite of teens generally being at their peak of health, they have a disproportionately high rate of injury and death.

"Their speed of reaction time is really high, their cognitive function, or their thinking, is pretty good, their athletic ability is great," Ernst says. "So they're really healthy, and at the same time, their rate of being sick or impaired and their rate of [injury and death] is really high.
Risky Teen Brains

The evidence is good that both factors are coming into play to determine much of the risk-taking seen in the teen years.

Many young adults, even middle-aged adults, continue in risk-taking behaviours long after the pre-frontal regions should have myelinated completely, and long after most of the "pruning" of the neocortex will have taken place. Those adults who are drawn to risky professions--the military, high rise construction, various high-risk maintenance jobs, underground mining, racing pilots and drivers, fishermen etc.--likely have "fully meylinated" forebrains, yet still rush to risky behaviours. That is not counting all the lawyers, accountants, dentists, physicians etc. who spend their free time pursuing high risk sports. Most risky of all--using the cell phone while driving--remains to be explained by neuroscience and the behavioural sciences.


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