Emory University researchers are using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to find clues that will lead to an understanding of why teens make bad decisions.
Although not everyone has parented a teenager, everyone has been a teenager - at least once. Conventional wisdom leads us to believe that when it comes to emotions teens just have not acquired enough experience or maturity to make rational decisions. Physiologically, scientists have explained that the decision-making part of the brain, the pre-frontal cortex, is under development and this impacts judgment.
Although both of these explanations have some truth to them, there also may be a third key way teenagers process information, says an Emory University expert.
"In this study we propose that the reason that teenagers sometimes make bad decisions is because the reward system in their brains is hyperactive," says Greg Berns, MD, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Emory University School of Medicine.
"Studies in both humans and other animals have suggested that the dopamine system peaks in activity during adolescence," says Dr. Berns. "If this is true, the abundance of dopamine might lead to different considerations of short-term and long-term rewards and consequences."
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter in the brain that is believed to affect motivation and is often associated the anticipation of pleasure. Dopamine plays a leading role in orchestrating our behaviors, thoughts, emotions and experiences.
When dopamine levels are balanced, we experience heightened states of alertness and awareness. When dopamine levels are too high it can cause distorted perceptions of reality, and trigger dangerous risk-taking. When too low, depression and lack of motivation result.
In a new study funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, Emory researchers will conduct three different experiments using fMRI. They will examine how the dopamine and reward system interacts with other parts of the brain during different types of decisions that teenagers face.
The clinical studies will examine how teenagers weigh risk and reward for different types of things that motivate their behavior: money, music and food. How peer pressure changes the brain's processing will also be measured.
"Results of this study may have significant impact on our understanding of normal human development," says Dr. Berns. "Adolescence is a period of risk-taking that can lead to serious consequences such as accidents, suicide or drug addiction. Having a better understanding about what prompts the behavior of teens will give adults some scientifically-based evidence to help guide activities during the time teenagers are the most vulnerable."
For more information or to participate in the study, contact Allison Turner, Project Coordinator, 404-727-3087.