JAN 04, 2018 6:18 AM PST

The Teen Brain is Wired to Learn

It's a common expression from people of a certain age. "These kids today!" While times are always changing, it's a given that the brain of a teenager is not fully developed. Teens can be impulsive, short-sighted and prone to risky behavior as a result of their immaturity; however, that same lack of development has a positive side as well.

 

It's not uncommon for teens to experience alcohol abuse, drug use, risky behavior and a general reckless nature. This is how the brain behaves when it's not yet fully grown. A particular region of the brain, the corpus striatum, is heavily involved in making the teen brain extremely susceptible to rewards. In the teen years, those rewards can rule the day.

While this brainstorm of impulse and reward in the teen mind can be troublesome, researchers from Leiden University have shown that this frenzy of activity in the corpus striatum isn't entirely a bad thing. Sabine Peters is an assistant professor of developmental and educational psychology at Leiden and the first author of the study. In a press release, she explained "The adolescent brain is very sensitive to feedback. That makes adolescence the ideal time to acquire and retain new information." The same brain that makes some questionable choices seems suited to learning.

The study at Leiden took place over five years. More than 700 functional MRI brain scans were performed on about 300 study volunteers, who ranged in age from 8 to 29. While in the scanner, study volunteers had to complete moves in a memory game, while getting feedback on their accuracy.

Peters reported that the fMRI scans showed an increased amount of activity in the corpus striatum when feedback was given, writing, "It showed that adolescents responded keenly to educational feedback. The adolescent received useful feedback; then you saw the corpus striatum being activated. This was not the case with less pertinent feedback, for example, if the test person already knew the answer. The stronger your brain recognizes that difference, the better the performance in the learning task. Brain activation could even predict learning performance two years into the future."

Anyone who has paid a teenager for shoveling snow or mowing the lawn knows that they are highly motivated towards rewards. They look both up and down the age range in this motivation, feeling best when they believe their payback is the same as what they perceive is given to younger children or adults. Teens feel squeezed in the middle. They switch between wanting to be little again and play with Legos or be a grown up that is paid for services. The study at Leiden demonstrated this activity in scans that showed the corpus striatum active in both positive feedback and when learning a task. While the teen brain might be complicated, and at times frustrating, the fact that the it's is not yet complete should be seen as a positive attribute. They can learn, they will learn and before you know it, they will be grown and so much smarter than they started out. Thanks to that immature, but very pliable, teen brain.

Sources: University of Leiden, PsychCentral, Nature Communications

About the Author
  • I'm a writer living in the Boston area. My interests include cancer research, cardiology and neuroscience. I want to be part of using the Internet and social media to educate professionals and patients in a collaborative environment.
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