BACKGROUND: Adolescence is the phase of life between late childhood and adulthood. Typically, adolescents seek diversion, new experiences, and strong emotions, sometimes putting their health at serious risk. In Germany, for example, 62% of all deaths among persons aged 15 to 20 are due to traumatic injuries. Neuroscientific explanations have been proposed for typical adolescent behavior; with these explanations in mind, one can derive appropriate ways of dealing with adolescents.
METHOD: We selectively review pertinent articles retrieved from the PubMed database about the structural and functional development of the brain in adolescence.
RESULTS: New findings in developmental psychology and neuroscience reveal that a fundamental reorganization of the brain takes place in adolescence. In postnatal brain development, the maximum density of gray matter is reached first in the primary sensorimotor cortex, and the prefrontal cortex matures last. Subcortical brain areas, especially the limbic system and the reward system, develop earlier, so that there is an imbalance during adolescence between the more mature subcortical areas and less mature prefrontal areas. This may account for typical adolescent behavior patterns, including risk-taking.
CONCLUSION: The high plasticity of the adolescent brain permits environmental influences to exert particularly strong effects on cortical circuitry. While this makes intellectual and emotional development possible, it also opens the door to potentially harmful influences.
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