New Study Shows That Most Teens do Have, And Use, Behavioral Brakes


Source: University of Oregon

Summary: According to a new research, children who struggle with weak cognitive control at an early age are at most risk for trouble in adulthood following their engagement in risk-taking activities in adolescence.


Cognitive control is the ability to exert top-down control over behavior, thoughts and emotions. This ability, tied to executive functions, rests in the brain’s prefrontal cortex. People have heard so much about the teenage brain being all gas and no brakes, stemming from an imbalance between the reward and control regions of the brain. There is an imbalance for some youth, but it is not universal. Researchers from the University of Oregon found that children who struggle with weak cognitive control at an early age are at most risk for trouble in adulthood following their engagement in risk-taking activities in adolescence. The study, found that only a subset of children who engage in excessive levels of impulsiveness, such as acting without thinking during their teen years, later struggle with addictions or other problem behaviors as young adults. The study findings were published in the journal Journal of Youth and Adolescence.

Impulsivity level

Credit: CC0 Public Domain

The research team analyzed 6 waves of data collected from 387 adolescents, ages 11 to 18, in the Philadelphia area. They looked at changes in sensation-seeking and impulsivity during their teen years in relation to working memory, a measure of cognitive control, and as predictors of substance use disorders in late adolescence. Only adolescents identified at the beginning of the study with weaknesses in cognitive control were at risk for impulsive action that put them at higher risk for substance abuse, the researchers concluded. While sensation-seeking rose in adolescence, it was not associated with weakness in cognitive control or later substance abuse. The research speaks to the need for greater emphasis on early interventions that can strengthen cognitive control. Adolescents need to engage in an exploratory behavior, a hat is how they learn and how the brain prunes synapses that are not needed, and strengthens the connections that are relevant.

Lead author Atika Khurana said, “Our research focuses on preventing maladaptive outcomes”, “executive functions develop rapidly between the ages of 2-5, but there is a second window of opportunity to intervene during adolescence, when there is rapid brain development.”


More Information: Atika Khurana et al, “Modeling Trajectories of Sensation Seeking and Impulsivity Dimensions from Early to Late Adolescence: Universal Trends or Distinct Sub-groups?”, Journal of Youth and Adolescence (2018). DOI: 10.1007/s10964-018-0891-9 


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