March 24, 2014 —

Every month, we’re keeping you informed on the latest studies and research in our “Not My Teen” blog series. Today, we’re looking at why teens are more likely to engage in risky behaviors if the anticipated payoff is great.

The brain undergoes significant maturation during the teenage years, which influences reward sensitivity and risk-taking behavior; however, it was previously unknown if the adolescent brain actually values rewards in a way that is unique from the adult brain or if there are other factors that contribute to the developmental difference. Recently, PNAS conducted a study to determine whether there is truly a distinct difference in the way that teens and adults value rewards.

In the experiment, scientists scanned the brains of 19 adults (age 25 to 30) and 22 teenagers (age 13 to 17) while they played a gambling game where they were asked to either accept or reject a bet with a 50-50 chance of winning or losing various amounts of money. During the brain scans, the ventral striatum – a.k.a. the brain’s reward center – lit up more in the teens’ brains than in the adults’ brains. Additionally, the teenage participants made more risky bets, for greater rewards, than the adult participants. As a result, scientists concluded that the brain circuits for responding to rewards are less mature in teenagers, even though teens and adults value rewards similarly. The study also confirmed previous research, revealing that the teenage brain is, in fact, more responsive and excitable to rewards as compared to the brains of adults and younger children.

According to Adriana Galván, a neuroscientist at UCLA who conducted the study, “These findings add to a growing body of research showing that how the developing [teen] brain responds to rewards is directly related to the choices they make, including risky choices and pleasure-seeking behavior.”

Furthermore, according to a LiveSciene article on the study, “Unrelated research has found that that risky teen behaviors, such as experimenting with drugs or having unsafe sex, are driven by an overactive mesolimbic dopamine system. Dopamine is the bread-and-butter of the brain's pleasure system, so greater dopamine activity could explain the pleasure-seeking behavior of teens.”

Parents need to understand that teenage brains are programmed to make impulsive and potentially risky decisions, especially if the perceived reward is great. Additionally, it is important for parents to help their teens prepare to handle such urges when they arise.