Brain Development During Adolescence

Learning Outcomes

  • Describe brain development during adolescence

The human brain is not fully developed by the time a person reaches puberty. Between the ages of 10 and 25, the brain undergoes changes that have important implications for behavior. The brain reaches 90% of its adult size by the time a person is six or seven years of age. Thus, the brain does not grow in size much during adolescence. However, the creases in the brain continue to become more complex until the late teens. The biggest changes in the folds of the brain during this time occur in the parts of the cortex that process cognitive and emotional information.

Up until puberty, brain cells continue to bloom in the frontal region. Some of the most developmentally significant changes in the brain occur in the prefrontal cortex, which is involved in decision making and cognitive control, as well as other higher cognitive functions. During adolescence, myelination and synaptic pruning in the prefrontal cortex increases, improving the efficiency of information processing, and neural connections between the prefrontal cortex and other regions of the brain are strengthened. However, this growth takes time and the growth is uneven.

The Teen Brain: 6 Things to Know

An illustration of a baby developing to a teenager alongside brains developing in mass and connections.

Figure 1. The brain reaches its largest size in the early teen years, but continues to mature well into the 20s.

As you learn about brain development during adolescence, consider these six facts from the The National Institute of Mental Health:

Your brain does not keep getting bigger as you get older

For girls, the brain reaches its largest physical size around 11 years old and for boys, the brain reaches its largest physical size around age 14. Of course, this difference in age does not mean either boys or girls are smarter than one another!

But that doesn’t mean your brain is done maturing

For both boys and girls, although your brain may be as large as it will ever be, your brain doesn’t finish developing and maturing until your mid- to late-20s. The front part of the brain, called the prefrontal cortex, is one of the last brain regions to mature. It is the area responsible for planning, prioritizing and controlling impulses.

The teen brain is ready to learn and adapt

In a digital world that is constantly changing, the adolescent brain is well prepared to adapt to new technology—and is shaped in return by experience.

Many mental disorders appear during adolescence

All the big changes the brain is experiencing may explain why adolescence is the time when many mental disorders—such as schizophrenia, anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and eating disorders—emerge.

The teen brain is resilient

Although adolescence is a vulnerable time for the brain and for teenagers in general, most teens go on to become healthy adults. Some changes in the brain during this important phase of development actually may help protect against long-term mental disorders.

Teens need more sleep than children and adults

Although it may seem like teens are lazy, science shows that melatonin levels (or the “sleep hormone” levels) in the blood naturally rise later at night and fall later in the morning than in most children and adults. This may explain why many teens stay up late and struggle with getting up in the morning. Teens should get about 9-10 hours of sleep a night, but most teens don’t get enough sleep. A lack of sleep makes paying attention hard, increases impulsivity and may also increase irritability and depression.

The limbic system develops years ahead of the prefrontal cortex. Development in the limbic system plays an important role in determining rewards and punishments and processing emotional experience and social information. Pubertal hormones target the amygdala directly and powerful sensations become compelling (Romeo, 2013). [1] Brain scans confirm that cognitive control, revealed by fMRI studies, is not fully developed until adulthood because the prefrontal cortex is limited in connections and engagement (Hartley & Somerville, 2015). [2] Recall that this area is responsible for judgment, impulse control, and planning, and it is still maturing into early adulthood (Casey, Tottenham, Liston, & Durston, 2005). 

An illustration of a brain is shown with the frontal lobe labeled.

Figure 2. Brain development continues into the early 20s. The development of the frontal lobe, in particular, is important during this stage.

Additionally, changes in both the levels of the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin in the limbic system make adolescents more emotional and more responsive to rewards and stress. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter in the brain associated with pleasure and attuning to the environment during decision-making. During adolescence, dopamine levels in the limbic system increase and input of dopamine to the prefrontal cortex increases. The increased dopamine activity in adolescence may have implications for adolescent risk-taking and vulnerability to boredom. Serotonin is involved in the regulation of mood and behavior. It affects the brain in a different way. Known as the “calming chemical,” serotonin eases tension and stress. Serotonin also puts a brake on the excitement and sometimes recklessness that dopamine can produce. If there is a defect in the serotonin processing in the brain, impulsive or violent behavior can result.

When the overall brain chemical system is working well, it seems that these chemicals interact to balance out extreme behaviors. But when stress, arousal or sensations become extreme, the adolescent brain is flooded with impulses that overwhelm the prefrontal cortex, and as a result, adolescents engage in increased risk-taking behaviors and emotional outbursts possibly because the frontal lobes of their brains are still developing.

Later in adolescence, the brain’s cognitive control centers in the prefrontal cortex develop, increasing adolescents’ self-regulation and future orientation. The difference in timing of the development of these different regions of the brain contributes to more risk taking during middle adolescence because adolescents are motivated to seek thrills that sometimes come from risky behavior, such as reckless driving, smoking, or drinking, and have not yet developed the cognitive control to resist impulses or focus equally on the potential risks (Steinberg, 2008). [3] One of the world’s leading experts on adolescent development, Laurence Steinberg, likens this to engaging a powerful engine before the braking system is in place. The result is that adolescents are more prone to risky behaviors than are children or adults.

Watch IT

This video further explains and highlights some of the key developments in the brain during adolescence.

You can view the transcript for “Brain changes during adolescence | Behavior | MCAT | Khan Academy” here (opens in new window).

As mentioned in the introduction to adolescence, too many who have read the research on the teenage brain come to quick conclusions about adolescents as irrational loose cannons. However, adolescents are actually making choices influenced by a very different set of chemical influences than their adult counterparts—a hopped up reward system that can drown out warning signals about risk. Adolescent decisions are not always defined by impulsivity because of lack of brakes, but because of planned and enjoyable pressure to the accelerator. It is helpful to put all of these brain processes in developmental context. Young people need to somewhat enjoy the thrill of risk taking in order to complete the incredibly overwhelming task of growing up.

Watch It

Watch the selected portion of this video to learn more about research related to brain changes and behavior during adolescence.

You can view the transcript for “The Teenage Brain Explained” here (opens in new window).

To learn more, watch this TED talk by Sarah-Jayne Blakemore: The mysterious workings of the adolescent brain about the latest adolescent brain research and more about how these changes in brain development also result in behavioral changes.

Key Takeaways

In sum, the adolescent years are a time of intense brain changes. Interestingly, two of the primary brain functions develop at different rates. Brain research indicates that the part of the brain that perceives rewards from risk, the limbic system, kicks into high gear in early adolescence. The part of the brain that controls impulses and engages in longer-term perspective, the frontal lobes, matures later. This may explain why teens in mid-adolescence take more risks than older teens. As the frontal lobes become more developed, two things happen. First, self-control develops as teens are better able to assess cause and effect. Second, more areas of the brain become involved in processing emotions, and teens become better at accurately interpreting others’ emotions.[4]

Try It

Sleep

Brain development even affects the way teens sleep. Adolescents’ normal sleep patterns are different from those of children and adults. Teens are often drowsy upon waking, tired during the day, and wakeful at night. Although it may seem like teens are lazy, science shows that melatonin levels (or the “sleep hormone” levels) in the blood naturally rise later at night and fall later in the morning in teens than in most children and adults. This may explain why many teens stay up late and struggle with getting up in the morning. Teens should get about 9-10 hours of sleep a night, but most teens don’t get enough sleep. A lack of sleep makes paying attention hard, increases impulsivity, and may also increase irritability and depression.[5]

Link to Learning: School Start Times

As research reveals the importance of sleep for teenagers, many people advocate for later high school start times. Read about some of the research at the National Sleep Foundation on school start times or watch this TED talk by Wendy Troxel: “Why Schools Should Start Later for Teens”.

glossary

amygdala:
part of the limbic system in the brain, which is involved with emotions and emotional responses and is particularly active during puberty
dopamine:
a neurotransmitter in the brain that plays a role in pleasure and the reward system; increases in the limbic system and later in the prefrontal cortex during adolescence
frontal lobes:
the parts of the brain involved in impulse control, planning, and higher order thinking; still developing in adolescence
limbic system:
structures in the brain (including the amygdala) that involve processing emotional experience and social information and determining rewards and punishments; develops years before the prefrontal cortex
melatonin:
sleep hormone whose levels rise later at night and decrease later in the morning for teens, compared to children and adults
myelination:
insulation of neurons’ axons with fatty substance (myelin sheath) that helps speed up the processing of information; myelination starts to increase in the prefrontal cortex during adolescence
prefrontal cortex:
part of the frontal lobes, involved with decision making, cognitive control, and other higher order functions; prefrontal cortex develops further during adolescence
serotonin:
“calming chemical,” a neurotransmitter in the brain involved with the regulation of mood and behavior; serotonin levels increase in the limbic system during adolescence
synaptic pruning:
connections in the brain that are not used much are lost so that other connections can be strengthened; this pruning happens with prefrontal cortex connections in adolescence

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  1. Romeo, R.D. (2013). The teenage brain: The stress response and the adolescent brain. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 22 (2), 140-145.
  2. Hartley, C.A. & Somerville, L.H. (2015). The neuroscience of adolescent decision-making. Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences, 5, 108-115.
  3. Steinberg, L. (2013). Adolescence (10th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.
  4. Steinberg, L. (2008) A social neuroscience perspective on adolescent risk-taking. Developmental Review, 28:78-106.
  5. National Institute of Mental Health. The Teen Brain: 6 Things to Know. Retrieved from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/the-teen-brain-6-things-to-know/index.shtml#pub6.