AP Biology class blog for discussing current research in Biology

Don’t Blame Me, Blame the Involuntary Remodeling of My Brain!

Credit: Susánica Tam

How many of you have found yourself doing something stupid, knowing that there will be major consequences for this action but doing it anyway? And how many of those people have found themselves getting yelled at by an adult for these actions? What those adults don’t know is that none of this is really your fault. Of course a teenager has to take responsibility for their decisions, but the fact that we are teenagers automatically makes us more inclined to take risks and get that adrenaline rush. So really, does the teen deserve to be blamed?

As reported in recent studies, according to an N.I.H. (National Institutes of Health) project, the brain reaches 90% of its full size by the time a person is six years old, and goes through intensive rewiring and remodeling between the ages of 15 and 25. What is happening during that time period, or adolescence, is that the brain’s axons gradually become more insulated with myelin. But that’s not all that’s happening. Dendrites are becoming thinner and heavily used synapses are becoming stronger (the rarely-used synapses become gray matter). That all happens to make your brain faster and more sophisticated.

How many times have you heard that “making mistakes are a part of growing up”? Well, it’s true! And (as I’m sure you are very well aware) learning from your mistakes is a BIG part of adolescence. In the brain, stronger links between the hippocampus and frontal areas are developing. The result from this type of remodeling is that teenagers become better at incorporating past experiences (or mistakes) into their future decisions.

At the same time, our frontal areas are developing greater speed and richer connections. This gives a teen the ability to balance out impulse, desire, goals, self-interest, rules, and ethics on a day-to-day basis. However, our brains are just getting used to this rewiring, so the average teenager can only help but slip up every now and again.

As if all this rewiring wasn’t enough, risk-taking and a need for excitement reaches a peak at around age 15. This can best be explained through two factors. One, teenagers are more receptive to dopamine and oxytocin; chemicals that make us LOVE winning and HATE losing, as well as make us prone that feeling of excitement when we are with all our friends and other kids our age. Two, it’s not that teenagers don’t understand how much damage a certain action will cause, it’s just that teenagers weigh the reward of completing this action much more heavily than the consequences if things go awry. The high levels of dopamine also explain why some teenage boy can’t seem to handle losing his soccer game, and why some 15-year-old girl becomes inconsolable after not being invited to that party.

So the next time you get in trouble for speeding down 25A, remember that you’re just a teenager and you’re going to make mistakes, due to the changes in your myelinated axons and high levels of dopamine and oxytocin. So everyone relax, because teenagers aren’t young adults, we’re just works in progress!


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1 Comment

  1. lagis2012

    I thought that was so interesting! I researched how dopamine affects teen actions, and found this website:
    It explains how dopamine levels in teens are responsible for addiction, depression, and the development of ADHD. I now can understand why teens do such stupid things!

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