Exploring the teenage brain

October 17, 2008 5:49:35 PM PDT
Enter, if you dare, the mind of an adolescent, or pre-adult. Some, like 20-year-old Dana Lillax, for whom speed and ramps offer more excitement than moderation.

Lillax has never contemplated his prefrontal cortex, or anyone else's, but Dr. Silvia Bunge has.

For those wondering why teenagers act the way they do, the University of California, Berkeley neuroscience professor is helping explain that.

"The child's brain, in this case, is out of sync," Bunge said.

Bunge's experiments with problem solving and brain mapping show that even when kids know better, they may not be able to stop themselves because their prefrontal cortex cannot yet respond fast enough.

"We're looking at physical causes of irresponsible behavior," Bunge said.

For a long time, researchers have wondered why some kids seem to develop faster than others; finally, they are beginning to get some answers.

It has to do with socioeconomics.

"What's the actual final cause? If I were to say, it's because they are in an impoverished environment," UC Berkeley psychologist Dr. Robert Knight said. "The brain likes to find new problems and solve them."

Dr. Robert Knight has looked at kids from all kinds of environments. He thinks it may be possible to train young brains to make better decisions.

"The brain is like any other organ," Knight said. "If you exercise it properly, you can make it better, just like you can make a muscle better. "

This research could eventually lead to new methods in juvenile law enforcement. It may be, that for some kids, jail might not be the most productive option.

"In the most practical sense, is this someone who's going to commit a crime again, or is this person's brain still developing, still changing," Bunge said.

And they may also be able to explain why the world has so few 50-year-old skateboarders.


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