Brain biology tied to social reorientation during entry to adolescence

April 23, 2013, University of Oregon
This graphic shows areas of the brain associated with social reorganization and self-evaluation in children entering puberty, based on fMRI research at the University of Oregon. Credit: Jennifer Pfeifer

A specific region of the brain is in play when children consider their identity and social status as they transition into adolescence—that often-turbulent time of reaching puberty and entering middle school, says a University of Oregon psychologist.

In a study of 27 neurologically typical children who underwent functional (fMRI) at ages 10 and 13, activity in the 's increased dramatically when the subjects responded to questions about how they view themselves.

The findings, published in the April 24 issue of the Journal of Neuroscience, confirm previous findings that specific brain networks support self-evaluations in the growing brain, but, more importantly, provide evidence that basic biology may well drive some of these changes, says Jennifer H. Pfeifer, professor of psychology and director of the psychology department's Developmental Social Neuroscience Lab.

"This is a longitudinal fMRI study, which is still relatively uncommon," Pfeifer said. "It suggests a link between neural responses during self-evaluative processing in the social domain, and pubertal development. This provides a rare piece of empirical evidence in humans, rather than animal models, that supports the common theory that adolescents are biologically driven to go through a social reorientation."

Participants were scanned for about seven minutes at each visit. They responded to a series of attributes tied to social or academic domains—social ones such as "I am popular" or "I wish I had more friends" and academic ones such as "I like to read just for fun" or "Writing is so boring." Social and academic evaluations were made about both the self and a familiar fictional character, Harry Potter.

In previous research, Pfeifer had found that a more dorsal region of the was more responsive in 10-year-old children during self-evaluations, when they were compared to adults. The new study, she said, provides a more detailed picture of how the brain supports self-development by looking at change within individuals.

The fMRI analyses found it was primarily the social self-evaluations that triggered significant increases over time in blood-oxygen levels, which fMRI detects, in the ventral medial prefrontal cortex. Additionally, these increases were strongest in children who experienced the most pubertal development over the three-year study period, for both girls and boys. Increases during academic self-evaluations were at best marginal. Whole-brain analyses found no other areas of the brain had significant increases or decreases in activity related to pubertal development.

"Neural changes in the social domain were more robust," Pfeifer said. "Increased responses in this one region of the brain from age 10 to 13 were very evident in social self-evaluations, but not academic ones. This pattern is consistent with the enormous importance that most children entering adolescence place on their peer relationships and social status, compared to the relatively diminished value often associated with academics during this transition."

In youth with autism spectrum disorders, this specialized response in ventral medial prefrontal cortex is missing, she added, citing a paper she co-authored in the February 2013 issue of the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders and a complementary study led by Michael V. Lombardo, University of Cambridge, in the February 2010 issue of the journal Brain. The absence of this typical effect, Pfeifer said, might be related to the challenges these individuals often face in both self-understanding and social relations.

"Dr. Pfeifer's research examining self-evaluations during adolescence adds significantly to the intricate puzzle of this turbulent age period," said Kimberly Andrews Espy, vice president for research and innovation and dean of the graduate school. "Researchers at the University of Oregon are piecing together how both biology and the environment dynamically and interactively support healthy social development."

Explore further: Mental picture of others can be seen using fMRI, new study finds

Related Stories

Mental picture of others can be seen using fMRI, new study finds

March 5, 2013
It is possible to tell who a person is thinking about by analyzing images of his or her brain. Our mental models of people produce unique patterns of brain activation, which can be detected using advanced imaging techniques ...

Recommended for you

Research reveals atomic-level changes in ALS-linked protein

January 18, 2018
For the first time, researchers have described atom-by-atom changes in a family of proteins linked to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a group of brain disorders known as frontotemporal dementia and degenerative diseases ...

Fragile X finding shows normal neurons that interact poorly

January 18, 2018
Neurons in mice afflicted with the genetic defect that causes Fragile X syndrome (FXS) appear similar to those in healthy mice, but these neurons fail to interact normally, resulting in the long-known cognitive impairments, ...

How your brain remembers what you had for dinner last night

January 17, 2018
Confirming earlier computational models, researchers at University of California San Diego and UC San Diego School of Medicine, with colleagues in Arizona and Louisiana, report that episodic memories are encoded in the hippocampus ...

Recording a thought's fleeting trip through the brain

January 17, 2018
University of California, Berkeley neuroscientists have tracked the progress of a thought through the brain, showing clearly how the prefrontal cortex at the front of the brain coordinates activity to help us act in response ...

Midbrain 'start neurons' control whether we walk or run

January 17, 2018
Locomotion comprises the most fundamental movements we perform. It is a complex sequence from initiating the first step, to stopping when we reach our goal. At the same time, locomotion is executed at different speeds to ...

A 'touching sight': How babies' brains process touch builds foundations for learning

January 16, 2018
Touch is the first of the five senses to develop, yet scientists know far less about the baby's brain response to touch than to, say, the sight of mom's face, or the sound of her voice.

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Jeddy_Mctedder
1 / 5 (1) Apr 23, 2013
decades of mri science are nearly pseudoscientific. the verbalized plain english conclusions based on activation patterns of large geographic areas are malarkey.

it is amazing, with all the advancements in single cell, and batch (group) neuron recordings that MRI research continues to get funded despite what we know about both the lack of specificity, and the lack of necessary causal relationships between O2 blood oxygenation patterns and actual timing dependent cascades of neural firing networks actually activating through a 'thought pattern' in the oscillating circuitry of the brain.
if thoughts depend on timed firing of circuits that are continually oscillating, how is a blood oxygenation pattern telling you anything worth funding a conclusion based hypothesis?

this is such bad science its starting to border on psuedo science, we've learned about everything we can from the Fmri model , it's time to move away from these tools to better ones for fundamental neurological research

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.