Teens sometimes seem like a different breed of human. We might call them young adults, but teenage brains are actually very different from those of adults, especially under stress or while making risky decisions, researchers are finding. "Teenagers experience stress as more stressful," study researcher Adriana Galván, at the University of California, Los Angeles, said in a statement to ScienceNatio, an online publication put out by the National Science Foundation (NSF). "If that stress is interfering with their decision making, it's really important to understand the neural mechanism that's underlying this connection between high levels of stress and poor decision making."
Galván has been scanning teenagers' brains to get a better understanding of their stress levels, thought processes and decision-making abilities. When the teens have having an extraordinarily stressful day (a 7 on a scale of 1 to 7), she asks them to come in for a brain scan to see exactly what's happening and to test how they make decisions. "The teenagers show more activation in the reward system than adults when making risky choices, and they are also making more risky choices than adults are," Galván said.
This difference is probably due to changes in a brain region called the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain that helps regulate behavior, including understanding future consequences of one's actions. In teenagers, this area is immature, which is why teens often seem to act without fully understanding the consequences, according to Galván.
"When you are stressed out as a teenager, it's interfering with your ability to make decisions," Galván said. "It's interfering with how the brain functions in regions that are still developing, mainly the reward system and the prefrontal cortex."
Knowing this deficiency is half the battle. Galván suggests that teens can lower their stress and risky decision-making by taking a minute to think about the consequences of their actions and how these consequences line up with their long-term goals.
Galván's work, which is sponsored by the NSF, is highlighted in this week's NSF ScienceNation video, above.
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Jennifer Welsh is a Connecticut-based science writer and editor and a regular contributor to Live Science. She also has several years of bench work in cancer research and anti-viral drug discovery under her belt. She has previously written for Science News, VerywellHealth, The Scientist, Discover Magazine, WIRED Science, and Business Insider.