Study charts development of emotional control in teens

June 7, 2016
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

Self-harm, suicide attempts climb among US girls, study says

November 21, 2017
Attempted suicides, drug overdoses, cutting and other types of self-injury have increased substantially in U.S. girls, a 15-year study of emergency room visits found.

Car, stroller, juice: Babies understand when words are related

November 20, 2017
The meaning behind infants' screeches, squeals and wails may frustrate and confound sleep-deprived new parents. But at an age when babies cannot yet speak to us in words, they are already avid students of language.

Simple EKG can determine whether patient has depression or bipolar disorder

November 20, 2017
A groundbreaking Loyola Medicine study suggests that a simple 15-minute electrocardiogram could help a physician determine whether a patient has major depression or bipolar disorder.

Non-fearful social withdrawal linked positively to creativity

November 20, 2017
Everyone needs an occasional break from the social ramble, though spending too much time alone can be unhealthy and there is growing evidence that the psychosocial effects of too much solitude can last a lifetime.

Cultural values can be a strong predictor of alcohol consumption

November 20, 2017
Countries with populations that value autonomy and harmony tend to have higher average levels of alcohol consumption than countries with more traditional values, such as hierarchy and being part of a collective. This new ...

A walk at the mall or the park? New study shows, for moms and daughters, a walk in the park is best

November 17, 2017
Spending time together with family may help strengthen the family bond, but new research from the University of Illinois shows that specifically spending time outside in nature—even just a 20-minute walk—together can ...

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.