Overview of Adolescent Brain Development
Over the past 25 years, scientists and researchers have made enormous strides in the area of brain functionality and architecture specific to the period of adolescence. Recent research conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) provides support that the adolescent brain is still under development and maturing during the teen years. The biggest changes occur in areas of the brain that affect self-control, decision making, emotions, and risk-taking behaviors. According to the new research, during adolescence, the brain experiences a second wave of overproduction of gray matter in the frontal lobe, the thinking part of the brain.1
During adolescence, outward physical changes, including faster body growth, sexual maturation, and development of secondary sexual characteristics, are occurring simultaneously with social, emotional, and cognitive development. All of these changes an adolescent is experiencing result in a dynamic period of learning and growth. As such, the adolescent brain is evolving in its ability to organize, regulate impulses, and weigh risks and rewards. However, there are changes in the way the brain processes rewards and pleasure, thus making teens more vulnerable to engaging in risky behaviors, such as unsafe sexual behavior, reckless driving or substance abuse. For that reason, appreciating that brain development is an important component of overall adolescent development will assist in AFL program staff’s understanding of adolescent sexual behavior and pregnancy.
The next section will provide AFL staff with a review of key developmental aspects of adolescence and characteristics of physical, cognitive, psychosocial, intimacy, and independence that they may experience.