A new study suggests that the risk-taking behavior common among teenagers is often guided by the desire to learn about the world.
This is contrary to a previous theory that argued that teenage risk-taking behavior is due to a brain deficit resulting in impulsive behavior.
Teenagers have a heightened attraction to new and exciting experiences, and researchers argue that teens who show this tendency alone aren't necessarily more likely to suffer from health issues like substance abuse.
A popular theory in recent neuroscience suggests that slow development of the prefrontal cortex, which has been linked to personality, and its weak connectivity with brain reward regions explains teenagers' seemingly impulsive and risky behavior.
However, a literature review conducted by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and Cornell University challenges this theory.
The researchers analyzed the evidence behind that argument and found that much of it misinterpreted adolescent exploratory behavior as impulsive and lacking in control.
Instead, the review suggests that much of what looks like teenage impulsivity is behavior that is often guided by the desire to learn about the world.
'Not long ago, the explanation for teenage behavior was raging hormones,' said lead author Dr Daniel Romer, research director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania.
'Now, it's that the prefrontal cortex isn't fully developed.
'Neuroscientists were quick to interpret what appeared to be a characteristic of the developing brain as evidence of stereotypes about adolescent risk taking.
'But these behaviors are not symptoms of a brain deficit.'
In their review, the researchers note that the brain development theory doesn't take into account the different kinds of risk taking.
According to the researchers, teenagers have a heightened attraction to novel and exciting experiences - called sensation seeking - which peaks during adolescence.
But teenagers who show this tendency alone are not necessarily more likely to suffer from health issues like substance use or gambling addiction.
The rise in adolescent levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which may be the cause for the increased drive for sensation seeking, also supports the brain's ability to exert greater control and to learn from experience.
'What's happening is that adolescents lack experience,' Dr Romer said.
'So they're trying things out for the first time - like learning how to drive.
'They're also trying drugs, deciding what to wear and who to hang out with.
'For some youth, this leads to problems.
'But when you're trying things for the first time, you sometimes make mistakes.
'Researchers have interpreted this as a lack of control when for most youth, it's just exploration.'
In the study, the researchers say that the stereotype of the risky teenager is based more on the rise of these types of behaviors in adolescence rather than its actual prevalence.
'For the vast majority of adolescents,' the researchers write, 'this period of development passes without substance dependence, sexually transmitted infection, pregnancy, homicide, depression, suicide, or death due to car crashes.'
It's a smaller subgroup of teens - those who show impulsive behavior and have weak cognitive control - who are most at risk of unhealthy outcomes.
Teenagers with impulse control problems can usually be identified at the age of four or five, and they're disproportionately likely experience problems during adolescence and after, including higher rates of injuries and illnesses from car crashes, violence, and sexually transmitted infections.
'Further research is clearly needed to understand the brain development of youth who are at risk for adverse outcomes, as abnormalities of brain development are certainly linked to diverse neuropsychiatric conditions,' said co-author Dr Theodore Satterthwaite, a faculty member in the Department of Psychiatry at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.
'This research will help us to understand not only what makes adolescence a period of growth but also of risk.'
Instead of the previous model related to the slow development of the prefrontal cortex, the researchers propose an alternative that emphasizes the role that risk taking and the experience gained from it play in adolescent development.
This model explains much of the apparent increase in risk taking by adolescents as 'an adaptive need to gain the experience required to assume adult roles and behaviors.'
That experience eventually changes the way people think about risk, making them more risk averse.
'Recent meta-analyses suggest that the way individuals think about risks and rewards changes as they mature, and current accounts of brain development must take these newer ideas into account to explain adolescent risk taking,' said co-author Dr Valerie Reyna, director of the Human Neuroscience Institute at Cornell University.
'The reason teens are doing all of this exploring and novelty seeking is to build experience so that they can do a better job in making the difficult and risky decisions in later life - decisions like "Should I take this job?" or "Should I marry this person?"
'There's no doubt that this period of development is a challenge for parents, but that's doesn't mean that the adolescent brain is somehow deficient or lacking in control.'
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