Study charts development of emotional control in teens

June 7, 2016, Society for Neuroscience
Credit: Jourden C/public domain

In the midst of all the apparent tumult, intense emotion, and occasional reckless behavior characterizing the teenage years, the brain is, in fact, evolving and developing the neural circuits needed to keep emotions in check. Research in the June 8, 2016 issue of The Journal of Neuroscience describes how the ability to control emotions moves from one brain area to another as teens mature into adults, offering an opportunity to understand how disorders related to emotional control emerge.

"Our study opens the way for a better understanding of the neurobiology behind adolescent behavior in emotionally arousing situations," said study author Anna Tyborowska of Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands. "The findings could also have important clinical implications [as] many psychiatric disorders emerge during adolescence and are characterized by problems with emotional action control."

Previous research links the spike in sensation-seeking and impulsive behavior during adolescence to the delayed maturation of the , a region of the involved in reasoning, planning, and decision-making. Study authors Inge Volman, Ivan Toni, and Karin Roelofs previously demonstrated the importance of the anterior prefrontal cortex in emotional control in adults. However, it has not been clear whether and how the delayed development of the prefrontal cortex affects emotional control during adolescence.

To address this question, the researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure brain activity in 47 healthy 14-year-old adolescents while they evaluated the emotional expressions of happy and angry faces. Sometimes, the teens were instructed to push a joystick toward happy faces and away from angry faces, a natural, instinctive response. Other times, they had to push the joystick toward and away from , an unnatural response requiring more emotional self-control.

The researchers also measured the adolescents' testosterone levels to gauge their pubertal maturation. Adolescents with high testosterone levels, or a greater level of maturity, showed stronger activity in the anterior prefrontal cortex during actions requiring more emotional self-control. Individuals with low had more activity in the amygdala and the pulvinar nucleus of the thalamus, subcortical brain regions known to play a key role in emotional processing.

Participants completed the task equally well regardless of testosterone level, suggesting both brain circuits support emotional control. However, the researchers indicate real-world scenarios may prove more challenging to subjects with an underdeveloped prefrontal cortex.

"This is one of the few studies that looks at how puberty stage is associated with brain development in young people who are all the same chronological age," said neuroscientist Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, who studies adolescent development at University College London and was not involved in the study. She said the results add to our understanding of typical behavior and how the brain changes in adolescence.

The results may also help us understand how emotional control can go awry during development. It's possible that the failure of the prefrontal cortex to integrate properly into the circuit could contribute to the emergence of affective disorders in adolescence.

Explore further: Testosterone influences regulation of emotions in psychopath's brain

Related Stories

Testosterone influences regulation of emotions in psychopath's brain

January 21, 2016
Brain research has demonstrated that psychopaths exhibit reduced control over their emotional actions. Researchers from the Donders Institute at Radboud University Nijmegen discovered that the quantity of testosterone a person ...

Teens may have less impulse control when faced with danger

November 11, 2013
(HealthDay)—Teens react more impulsively to danger than children or adults, which might explain why they're more likely to be involved in crimes, according to a new study.

Emotion dysregulation in borderline personality disorder: A problem of too much drive and too little control?

January 13, 2016
Borderline personality disorder (BPD) is a diagnostic label applied to people who have problems regulating emotional mood swings. This emotional instability leaves such individuals vulnerable to emotional upheaval that puts ...

Alcohol breaks brain connections needed to process social cues

August 29, 2013
(Medical Xpress)—Alcohol intoxication reduces communication between two areas of the brain that work together to properly interpret and respond to social signals, according to researchers at the University of Illinois at ...

Soldiers with PTSD more 'tuned' to angry faces because of over-connected brain circuits

January 20, 2016
Soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are more 'tuned' to perceive threatening facial expressions than people without PTSD because of more over-connected brain circuits, according to a new study published in ...

A young neurologist explores the mysteries of the teenage brain

January 15, 2016
Mexican doctoral student Lucia Magis Weinberg at the University College London (UCL) researches how the brain develops during adolescence. In this stage of life, the brain undergoes important development and brain maturation ...

Recommended for you

It's okay when you're not okay: Study re-evaluates resilience in adults

August 16, 2018
Adversity is part of life: Loved ones die. Soldiers deploy to war. Patients receive terminal diagnoses.

Expecting to learn: Language acquisition in toddlers improved by predictable situations

August 16, 2018
The first few years of a child's life are crucial for learning language, and though scientists know the "when," the "how" is still up for debate. The sheer number of words a child hears is important; that number predicts ...

Men and women show surprising differences in seeing motion

August 16, 2018
Researchers reporting in the journal Current Biology on August 16 have found an unexpected difference between men and women. On average, their studies show, men pick up on visual motion significantly faster than women do.

Stress during pregnancy increases risk of mood disorders for female offspring

August 16, 2018
High maternal levels of the stress hormone cortisol during pregnancy increase anxious and depressive-like behaviors in female offspring at the age of 2, reports a new study in Biological Psychiatry. The effect of elevated ...

Letting PTSD patients choose method of treatment improves their health, quality of life: new research

August 16, 2018
Letting people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) choose between treatment methods improves their quality of life and reduces the disorder's symptoms, according to new research from Case Western Reserve University.

Dominant men make decisions faster

August 16, 2018
Hierarchies exist across all human and animal societies, organized by what behavioral scientists refer to as dominance. Dominant individuals tend to climb higher up the hierarchy ladder of their particular society, earning ...

0 comments

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.