Skip to main content

How the Brains of Risk-Taking Teens Work

There's heightened functional connectivity between the brain's emotion regulator and reason center, according to a recent neuroscience paper.
(Photo: Universal Pictures)

(Photo: Universal Pictures)

Teenagers are notorious for making stupid decisions.

Forty-eight percent of teenage deaths in the United States between 1999 and 2006 were caused by “unintentional injuries,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This includes car crashes, overdoses, and other types of accidents.

In a recent study from the University of Texas-Dallas’ Center for BrainHealth, neuroscientists set out to discover differences in brain activity between risk-taking adolescents and their non-risk-taking peers.

The paper, which was published in Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging in June, “examined functional connectivity," or the amount of correlational activity between different parts of the brain, "in the resting state in 18 risk-taking (RT) adolescents compared with 18 non-risk-taking (NRT) adolescents as defined by the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Survey,” on which participants answered questions about their sexual activity, substance use, and violent behavior tendencies.

"This may suggest a neural inefficiency in risk-taking adolescents which serves as a vulnerability factor towards future, pathological risk-taking behaviors."

The average age of both groups was 14, and each consisted of 10 males and eight females. Furthermore, no participants met the criteria for any psychopathology or behavioral disorders.

Lead author Samuel DeWitt, along with colleagues Sina Aslan and Francesca Filbey, used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure the extent to which separate brain regions were interacting. The participants were purposefully not assigned any tasks during this process, so the researchers could analyze default neural activity.

"Unlike task-induced brain activation, analysis of the brain during a resting state provides us with information about the intrinsic organization of connectivity in brain networks," DeWitt explains in an email. "This organization is shown in many cases to serve as a blueprint for how brain regions will activate and communicate with one another during a task-specific state."

The researchers found that risk-taking adolescents, compared with the non-risk-taking group, exhibit heightened connectivity between the amygdala, an emotion center, and the prefrontal cortex, a reasoning center, during a resting state.

Combined, the amygdala and prefrontal cortex are believed to be integral to the “emotion regulation circuits” in the human brain, meaning a hyperactive connection can lead to ill-advised decisions. Because self-regulation literature posits that there are limited neural resources, the authors write, “Higher connectivity of these emotion-regulation regions under resting conditions in risk-taking adolescents may be the source of neural depletion, resulting in hypoactivation in these regions during task-related behaviors, especially in the context of risk-taking.”

"This may suggest a neural inefficiency in risk-taking adolescents which serves as a vulnerability factor towards future, pathological risk-taking behaviors," DeWitt says.

Additionally, the RT group scored a significantly higher score than the NRT group on the novelty-seeking subscale of the Jouve-Cerebrals Test of Induction, yet “no significant difference between the two groups was found for the reward-seeking or harm-avoidance subscales." This implies that RT individuals may have a greater capacity to be influenced by the novelty of a potentially harmful experience than NRT individuals.

So next time you hear of a teenager's misadventure with cheap beer and bottle rockets, stop and ask yourself, “Was that simply the result of peer pressure or his/her diminished self-control due to a default state of heightened neural activity?” It’s a valid question.