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Brain development

Adolescent brain development

Scientists now know that the brain is getting reorganized in a big way during the teenage years. This is a time of huge opportunities — and risks.

Everyone knows the importance of guiding and nurturing toddlers, whose brains are developing at warp speed. But what about the development of the teen brain? We’re now learning that adolescents go through a similar wave of major development. From ages 13 to about age 25, a pruning and strengthening process is happening in their brains. During that time, the brain cells and neural connections that get used the least get pruned away and die off; those that get used the most get stronger.

This new knowledge about adolescent brain development explains why it’s so important for parents to encourage teens to have healthy activities: The more time your teen spends learning music, the stronger those brain connections get. The same is true of the connections she uses for playing video games, mastering a sport, or watching TV.

Ironically, this period — when the brain is rapidly changing and most vulnerable to outside influences — is when teens are most likely to experiment with drugs and alcohol. Why? One reason may be because the brain region that’s responsible for making complex judgments (the Prefrontal Cortex) isn’t fully mature, and therefore is prone to being overpowered by the emotional or motivational regions that are more mature. Scientists believe this aspect of teenage brain development explains why young people sometimes use poor judgment and don’t have good impulse control.

Because of the huge changes happening in the teenage brain, it’s possible that a decision your teen makes now may affect him for life. (Brain scans, for instance, have linked alcohol abuse with decreased memory functioning.1) Just sharing that fact with your teen may help him to stop and think before he takes any chances, and even inspire him to make more healthy choices.


1 Nagel, Schweinsburg, Phan & Tabert, “Imaging Psysiologic Dysfunction of Individual Hippocampal Subregions in Humans and Genetically Modified Mice,” 2005

Next Step: Behavior & the Teen Brain