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Are teenage brains wired differently?

by on 2015/06/26

How patient is your teen? Well, a research study is being interpreted in the media as showing that teenager’s brains “are wired differently”  when it comes to the ability to be patient. The study, which looked at brain structure and function, while teens performed a decision making task, had the participants decide between an immediate small reward and a delayed larger reward. The teens had difficulties waiting for the larger payment, and the brain imaging findings suggested this was because structural connections between two key areas activated during decision making were not yet as strong in adolescents as they are in adults. So does this provide evidence that teenager’s brains are wired differently?

Who were the researchers and what did they do?

The study was carried out by a group of researchers lead by Wouter van den Bos at the Max Planck Institute in Berlin Germany. The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The study involved asking 50 participants who were aged between 8 and 25 years to complete a decision task. The participants had to decide whether to choose an immediate small payment or a later, larger payment. The activity and structural connectivity of brain regions known to be activated in decision making were measured using magnetic resonance imaging while the participants performed the decision making task.

What were the findings and how did the media handle the story?

The media varied in how they handled the story. If you look at the press release associated with the study it is clear that the authors/University Press Office were careful about the description of the study findings. The authors explain that the teenagers found it difficult to wait for the larger payment and that this might be explained by the fact that the “structural connections between two key areas activated during decision making were not yet as strong in adolescents as they are in adults”. As the authors explain, with increasing age these connections between the two areas of the brain become stronger, and teenagers can ward off impatience in light of a future goal. Some of the press coverage stayed close to this interpretation of the findings such as the headline “developing brain connections make teenagers impatient and impulsive” while others incorrectly inferred that teenagers brains are wired differently. This interpetation was accompanied by a photo of Kevin the teenager – no doubt to assist with the comic factor of the story. It incorrectly suggests a brain difference between teens and adults rather than taking a developmental interpretation focusing on brain connections becoming stronger. All the media coverage did well however to link to the authors and cite the journal where the study was published in. So no, this study doesn’t provide any evidence that teenage brains are ‘wired differently’ as such!

van den Bos, W. et al. (2015). Adolescent impatience decreases with increased frontostriatal connectivity. PNAS. DOI:10.1073/pnas.1423095112

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