Mom Was Right: Teen Brains Are Different

Diana Zuckerman
July 1, 2000

Adolescent brains really are different from adult brains, and the differences may explain the impulsiveness and aggression that are more typical of the teenage years, according to Deborah Yurgelun-Todd, Ph.D., speaking at a recent meeting on adolescent self-destructive behavior sponsored by Cambridge Hospital in Massachusetts.

The neural activities of the brains of 15 adolescents and 15 adults were compared using magnetic resonance imaging (MRIs) during a facial recognition task and a word production task. Compared with adults, the teenagers’ brains seemed to have less functional activity in the frontal cortex, which is the part of the brain that organizes and modulates behavior. Instead, teenage brains were more active than adult brains in the amygdala, which is responsible for associating external sensory stimuli with emotions.

The study supports a biological explanation for the differences between teenagers and adults, according to Dr. Yurgelun-Todd, who is director of cognitive neuroimaging and neuropsychology at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass. In addition to the differences in brain activities, teenagers were more likely to misread facial expressions than adults. This could potentially cause problems in interpersonal relationships, according to Yurgelun-Todd.

Although the study is small and should be considered preliminary, it is the second recent study showing how teen brains differ from those of adults (see “Research Watch,” May 2000). These studies remind us that the biological changes of adolescence are an important influence on some of the behaviors that are so difficult to control or understand.

Zuckerman, Diana. "Mom Was Right: Teen Brains Are Different." Research Watch review of "Teen Brains Have Less Frontal Cortex Function". Youth Today, July/August 2000, p. 15.

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