Wise Wednesday Brain Byte: Teen Brain

This week I had the privilege of hearing from a man who shared his very difficult and painful 2.5 year journey with his only son.  His son was in his early twenties, came from a healthy middle-class family, achieved a 32 on his ACT and was a great all-American kid (for those outside of the US, this means he was well kept, well-liked).  He attended university out of town, but had recently transferred to a University in his hometown.  This young man met a girl who had modelled in a metropolitan city and during this experience met up with the wrong crowd.  The type of crowd that lures unsuspecting successful kids into the life of drugs.  Since she could no longer keep jobs, she moved back to her home state and hung out on this same University campus, because there were many ‘partying’ houses that welcomed her.  It was at one of these parties that the two met.

According to the boy’s father, after piecing together bits of stories he came to uncover this picture: one night his son was drinking; the beautiful girl offered him heroine (or some precursor to it) and within three months this young man was HOOKED.  By hooked, I mean he was at the point of needing the drug so much he was stealing family heirlooms and money and his sister’s X-Box, nothing was off-limits to get the money he needed to get his next fix of heroine.

I opened with the fact that it was a privilege to hear from this father, and I feel this way because what he shared was what we would normally consider very up-close and personal.  You see, in spite of the father’s attempt to do everything he possibly could to help his son get clean – his son died  two and a half years after he first experienced heroin.  And because of what this father shared, I believe lives may be spared.  A little education goes a long way.  The one hundred people he taught that night will turn around and share with at least one more person, probably an average of 200 more people will have the ability to educate their children and their friends.

His main message:  The prefrontal cortex does not fully mature until the mid twenties.  Why does this matter?  This is where reason occurs.

According to the Guardian dot com:

Teenagers can do the craziest things. They drive at high speeds. They stand around outside loud parties and smoke weed in front of the cops. They guzzle liquor. They insult their parents – or lie to them – and feel no remorse, because, of course, their parents are idiots.

Using such tools as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and positron emission tomography (PET), scientists have peered into teen brains and found that typically, until a person hits his early to mid-20s, his prefrontal cortex is still rapidly changing. So are the cell endings and chemical connections that link the cortex to parts of the brain associated with gut impulses.

It is easy to blame peer pressure or wilfulness, but scientific studies suggest that at least some of this out-there behaviour has a physiological tie-in: brain mapping technologies show that the average teenager’s brain looks slightly different from an adult’s. The biggest differences lie in the prefrontal cortex – a part of the brain associated with reasoning – and in the networks of brain cells that link the cortex to regions of the brain that are less about reasoning and thinking and more about emotion.

When people are around 15 or 16 years old, many brain cells in the cortex die off while others are created, and new connections form among them. A lot of the basic cognitive abilities – advanced reasoning, abstract thinking, self-consciousness rapidly expand during this time, says Laurence Steinberg, a Temple University psychology professor. “The connections within the brain don’t fully branch out until age 22 or so. The kinds of capabilities that connectivity contributes to – emotion regulation and impulse control – probably plateau in the early to mid-20s.”




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