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Revealed: the teenage brain upgrades that occur before adulthood
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Adolescent brain development | thInk
Can Movies Cause Teens to Smoke? MRI scans of adolescents and young adults have shown how the teenage brain upgrades itself to become quicker — but that errors in this process may lead to schizophrenia in later life.
When Whitaker and her team scanned brains from people between the ages of 14 and 24, they found that two major changes take place in the outer layer of the brain — the cortex — at this time. As adolescence progresses, this layer of grey matter gets thinner — probably because unwanted or unused connections between neurons — called synapses — are pruned back. At the same time, important neurons are upgraded. The parts of these cells that carry signals down towards synapses are given a sheath that helps them transmit signals more quickly — a process called myelination.
Researchers are now confronted with structural changes that occur much later in adolescence.
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In teens affected by a rare, childhood onset form of schizophrenia that impairs these functions, the MRI scans revealed four times as much gray matter loss in the frontal lobe as normally occurs. A layer of insulation called myelin progressively envelops these nerve fibers, making them more efficient, just like insulation on electric wires improves their conductivity. Advancements in MRI image analysis are providing new insights into how the brain develops.
Striking growth spurts can be seen from ages 6 to 13 in areas connecting brain regions specialized for language and understanding spatial relations, the temporal and parietal lobes. This growth drops off sharply after age 12, coinciding with the end of a critical period for learning languages. While this work suggests a wave of brain white matter development that flows from front to back, animal, functional brain imaging and postmortem studies have suggested that gray matter maturation flows in the opposite direction, with the frontal lobes not fully maturing until young adulthood.
As expected, areas of the frontal lobe showed the largest differences between young adults and teens.
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Parietal and temporal areas mediating spatial, sensory, auditory and language functions appeared largely mature in the teen brain. Another series of MRI studies is shedding light on how teens may process emotions differently than adults. As teens grow older, their brain activity during this task tends to shift to the frontal lobe, leading to more reasoned perceptions and improved performance. Similarly, the researchers saw a shift in activation from the temporal lobe to the frontal lobe during a language skills task, as teens got older. These functional changes paralleled structural changes in temporal lobe white matter.
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