Adolescent brain development

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Positive for Youth

Discussion Paper
June 2011


A Positive for Youth Summit took place on 9 March 2011 bringing together ministers and officials from seven Government departments with experts, professionals and young people to debate the key issues faced by young people and services for young people.

Building on the summit, this paper is part of a series of discussion papers being developed in partnership with experts from the youth sector This paper and a number of other discussion papers, can be found at

Through these papers we are promoting a public debate on these issues in order to help shape a new Government policy statement on young people and services for young people. Please note that these are discussion papers and not final statements of Government policy.

We would welcome comments and views on the issues and questions set out in this paper.

Your comments will help to inform the development of this new policy statement. Comments should be sent to the email box by 15 September 2011. We regret that we will not be able to respond to every email we receive.



  1. This paper looks at what we know of the development of the adolescent brain and seeks to identify key messages which have relevance to the Department’s priorities and which may help promote positive brain development and outcomes.

  2. It is based principally on findings emerging from neuroscience, but also includes insights from other disciplines such as cognitive psychology. The paper concentrates specifically on the adolescent phase of brain development – spanning early (roughly 11-13 years) middle (14-16 years) and late (17-19 years) adolescence - and related implications. It does not attempt to cover more generalised aspects of brain development (e.g. identification of specific conditions and learning difficulties) or those associated with the early years (e.g. language acquisition), even though some of these may have consequences for some adolescents.

How the brain develops

  1. The brain consists of a vast amount of nerve cells (neurons) and glial cells (nerve tissues that provide support and insulation for the neurons). Neurons act as processors and exchange information through electrical signals transmitted around the brain.

  2. The brain develops through a number of different processes. While in very early development the creation of neurons (neurogenesis) and neuronal migration play a major role, during adolescence the brain develops though processes of synaptogenesis – the creation of new connections (synapses) between neurons - and synaptic pruning – the elimination of infrequently used connections as the brain is tailored to fit to its environment. Other aspects of neuron structure also change during development. Axons – a specialised extension of the neuron which carries electrical impulses away from the neuronal cell body - increase in diameter and myelination – the development of a myelin “sheath” around the axon1 - takes place. These changes increase the speed of transmission of the electrical signal during development.

  3. Until the fairly recent past it was thought that it was only the early years which had critical developmental importance, and that after the first few years of development, the brain was “set”. Therefore failure to ensure that young children had optimal support and developmental environments would result in inevitably poor outcomes later on and remediation would have little effect. Consequently, the greatest return on investment would be realised by concentrating on early years, and on those who were already advantaged.

  4. However developments over the last decade or so, in particular in neuroscience and cognitive psychology have made it clear that this is not the case: the brain does not fully mature until the twenties, and retains plasticity and learning capacity throughout life. However there are periods of particularly rapid development and sensitivity. One of these is undoubtedly the early years when motor and sensory faculties are developed and children have particular sensitivity to language acquisition. Another is adolescence.

Brain changes in Adolescence

  1. Puberty and pre-puberty heralds the beginning of a rapid and considerable re-organisation of the brain. Immediately prior to puberty a “second wave” of grey matter development and synaptic over-production is thought to take place (the first “wave” having taken place in early childhood).2 This is followed in adolescence by a time of “massive” synaptic pruning, with substantial loss of grey matter34, while at the same time myelination and axon growth is occurring, increasing the speed with which information is communicated in the brain.

  2. The degree of change varies in different regions of the brain, with development particularly marked in the prefrontal cortex (the “reasoning” area of the brain, involved in emotional and impulse control)5, and raised activity levels in the ventral striatum, an area of the brain associated with reward and pleasure.6 However, these systems do not develop in tandem – the heightened sensitivity to reward occurs in early adolescence, whereas the development of the impulse control and strategic decision-making functions associated with the prefrontal cortex occurs more gradually, over a much longer period of time. At the same time some social capabilities, such as the ability to recognise emotions in others7 and the ability to understand another person’s point of view – functions again associated with areas of the prefrontal cortex8 - are temporarily compromised or still undergoing significant development into late adolescence9. Studies also suggest that adolescents are still developing the ability to deal with social and emotional distress, making them less able to cope with peer rejection and social exclusion.10 These changes in social functioning occur at a time when peer interaction is increasing and reliance on parents and family is decreasing.

  3. While these maturation processes and their outworking will vary from person to person in response to genetic and environmental factors, for some the combination of still-developing decision-making and social functioning, combined with a hyper-sensitivity to reward, may contribute to increased engagement in risk-taking behaviours, such as excessive alcohol consumption, drug-taking, crime, unprotected sex and recklessness while driving.

  4. Some researchers have suggested that such behaviours are a normal part of growing up, and help young people prepare for independence 11. Recent research suggests these behaviours are also more likely in the presence of peers due to increased activity in the brain’s reward centres when peers are known to be watching – a phenomenon found in adolescents but not adults1213. This may help to account for the fact that much youth crime takes place in the presence of a peer group, while adults are more likely to be alone when they commit crimes. Most young people negotiate these risks without lasting harm, but differences in metabolic and neural processes place adolescents experimenting with drugs at greater risk than adults of addiction to some substances.

  5. The scale and scope of the changes, and their relation to emotional development means that this is a particularly important time in relation to mental health. Many psychological disorders such as schizophrenia and bipolar affective disorder begin to manifest themselves in adolescence, possibly related to an abnormally increased rate and volume of synaptic pruning in some individuals, although this in turn may be the result of other pre-existing abnormalities in neural development14 15. Some young people are also vulnerable to depression, particularly in mid and late adolescence. In addition to mood and behaviour, this may affect attention and academic performance, and sufferers are also at increased risk of depression in adulthood. Regions of the brain – the ventral striatum, amygdala, and orbitofrontal cortex - linked to reward have been implicated in the occurrence of depression, possibly reflecting a vulnerability or disruption of these systems related to their change and development.16

  6. In addition to internal physiological processes the brain is also sensitive to stress created by the environment. While some stress can be beneficial, particularly where well-managed, animal experiments suggest that exposure to chronic or “toxic” stress in adolescence - e.g. from poor living conditions, neglect or abuse - has the potential to impair learning and memory in later life, through effects on the brain’s structures and neural processes.17 These stresses can be incurred by what may be perceived as relatively “low level” events such as bullying: recent findings of studies among children and teenagers relate the experience of victimization by peers – particularly during the early teens - to changes in both cortisol18 (a stress hormone) secretion and to brain structures such as the corpus callosum (which links the two hemispheres of the brain together). There are also links to adverse later outcomes such as susceptibility to depression and levels of drug use19. While these fall short of causal proof that being a victim of bullying leads to these neurological changes and poor outcomes, the associations are statistically significant and the effect sizes of a similar order to those associated with parental verbal abuse.

  7. However, it should not be supposed that adolescence is a time of great difficulty and stress for all or even most individuals. While some young people do undoubtedly suffer as a result of stress or inherent neurological disorders, the majority manage the transition to adulthood fairly well, often displaying resilience in the face of challenge or disadvantage.20

  8. This highlights the importance once again of individual variation: some young people are better able to cope with stress than others, Recent research suggests that this difference may be reflected in the structure of their brains. Mentally tough individuals - those with a high ability to cope with challenges and operate at peak performance levels - have a greater volume of grey matter tissue in the right frontal lobe, an area of the brain associated with strategic thinking and problem solving, and the precuneus, involved in the sense of self and one’s capabilities. 2122

Sex Difference in Brain Development

  1. The evidence suggests that there are differences in the way male and female brains approach similar tasks, in some cases using slightly different neural processes to achieve the same end. 23 For instance females appear to process language in subtly different ways compared with males.24 25 Evidence on attitudes to risk-taking varies, with some research reporting boys markedly more likely to take risks26, while a recent (admittedly fairly small) brain imaging study found “no meaningful difference” between boys and girls in this respect.27 There are also differences in brain size and maturation rates between males and females, with adult males having on average, brains which are around 10% larger than is the case for females (although if body size is taken into account, differences are small), while grey matter and overall brain volume peaks somewhat earlier in females than males. However, white matter volume appears to increase throughout adolescence for both sexes. And, while gender differences are noticeable there are also concerns that these could be overplayed: overall, male and female brains are very similar.28 Further, gender is only one of many differences which may affect the way an individual’s brain functions.29

Further work and policy implications
When to invest

  1. What we know of adolescent brain development highlights the importance of continued investment in adolescent education and services if early investment is to be fully realised in adulthood, and early gains are not to be dissipated. Recent attempts to integrate economic approaches with what we know of child development suggest that adolescence may be a particularly important time to focus on skills such as motivation, socioemotional regulation, personality factors, and the ability to work with others.30 Secondary and tertiary education is therefore important as a means of building on the knowledge and extending the range of skills built up during childhood.

  2. At the same time the importance of supporting wider services for this age group is implied by the unique vulnerabilities of this age group to risk-taking, victimization by peers and the onset of mental health problems. However, there are wider issues to be taken into account – for instance the relative costs and benefits of prevention versus treatment, the different nature of interventions required at different ages, the need for more in-depth subject knowledge of teachers for older age groups, the relative prevalence of some conditions at some ages compared to others (e.g. the greater prevalence of some mental health conditions in adolescence compared to childhood)

Making information available and developing the evidence base

  1. Much of what we now know about the adolescent brain is relatively new, and still developing. At the same time “brain science” is seen as exciting and offering a “hard science” basis for policy and practice. Liaison with experts in relevant fields such as neuroscience and cognitive psychology is important to develop authoritative, balanced information on brain development and its implications for professionals, which is clear but also honest about what we still don’t know. We need to look at the most effective way of not only keeping practitioners and policy makers up to date with relevant developments, but giving them opportunities to help shape some of the lines of expert enquiry. Rapid development in our understanding of the adolescent brain means that this is likely to be not a one-time only exercise, but an ongoing process of engagement.

  2. Parents too may stand to gain a better understanding of their teenage children’s behaviour, what may be driving it and how this may vary in different situations. For instance, in relation to risk-taking, parents may need to know that their child may be driven to act less responsibly when with peers than with their parents, so they can take appropriate action. Better information may also be able to provide reassurance to parents about what is “normal”, and help early identification of emerging problems. Making reliable information more widely available may also promote greater public understanding and help to address negative attitudes towards some young people. And young people too may benefit from understanding more about the development of their own brains. We need to consider what families and young people need to know about adolescent brain development and how we can make this information accessible to them when they need it.

Adolescent mental health

  1. Research shows that adolescence is a particularly important time for mental health and is when many disorders first become apparent. Adolescent mental health services are consequently an important area of provision. Parents are likely to need access to information and advice to support their children when they have mental health problems so they can be confident in accessing suitable care and treatment. In addition, what we know about the neural changes which can result from chronic or “toxic” stress - caused by not just physical and sexual abuse but also verbal abuse and neglect highlights the importance of recognising and addressing all forms of abuse at the earliest opportunity. We need to look more closely at the information needs of professionals – including those working outside child and adolescent mental health services – for information to help them identify and respond to young people’s mental health needs.

  2. There is also potential for developing research in brain science to provide more accurate, earlier identification of mental health problems and better treatment. As yet, however, knowledge about the origins and development of many mental health conditions is limited – particularly for children and adolescents who are less commonly the subject of brain imaging studies than adults. We also understand relatively little about how different forms, timings and intensities of maltreatment differ in their effects on the brain. Developing knowledge may help us to offer more effective approaches to treatment of these effects, but much is still unknown.

  3. There may be also be scope for preventive approaches to mental health problems – for instance, developing and assessing strategies to enable young people to cope with stress and build resilience, so that they can meet effectively the challenges in their lives.

Key points made through the consultation

Government’s position

Action Government is taking

There is widespread interest in and support for engaging with the developing field of brain research. A number of responses draw attention to further academics and research publications not currently captured by the Department’s review.

The Department is keen to develop a full understanding of the evidence base and welcomes further dialogue with leading academics.

We will add additional material from the key responses to the research overview and look to update it as new evidence becomes available.

We will engage directly with key groups, such as Catch 22 and Nottingham University, to learn more about their new work.

There is a feeling that both practitioners and parents would benefit from a fuller understanding of young people’s development. This would promote a better understating of typical development pathways and enable parents and practitioners to support better young people’s development.

The Department is keen to see this learning more widely shared to support more effective parenting approaches and more effective youth work.

Emphasising the responsibility of employers to develop the skills of the young people’s workforce.

The research highlights the need for a range of support for adolescents, from low level support and guidance to more specialist services. This means maintaining open access services and promoting confidence through recognising achievements. In addition, need to ensure wider community factors are considered and approach does not become too ‘medical’.

The Department considers local areas best placed to decide the range of intensity of support they offer young people.

The statement emphasises the need to recognise and celebrate young people’s achievements. It also sets out the merits of a wide range of support for young people including in schoools and colleges and through specialist services.

  1. 1

2 Giedd JN, Blumenthal J, Jeffries NO, et al. Brain development during childhood and adolescence: a longitudinal MRI study. Nature Neuroscience, 1999; 2(10): 861-3.

3 Grey matter contains the main cell body of the neuron. White matter is made up of the myelinated axons and connects areas of grey matter within the brain.

4 Spear, L.P (2000) Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews 24 (2000) 417–463

5 Royal Society (2011) Brain Waves Module 2:Neuroscience: implications for education and lifelong learning


7 National Institute for Mental Health Teenage Brain: A work in progress (Fact Sheet)

8 Other areas of the brain implicated in the form of social processing known as “mentalizing” (i.e. understanding another person’s point of view) are the posterior superior temporal sulcus and the temporoparietal junction.

9 Blakemore, S-J (2010) The Developing Social Brain: Implications for Education. Neuron. 2010 March 25; 65(6): 744–747. doi: 10.1016/j.neuron.2010.03.004.

10 Sebastian, C et al (2010) Social brain development and the affective consequences of ostracism in adolescence Brain Cognition , 72 (1) 134 - 145. 10.1016/j.bandc.2009.06.008.

11 Spear, L.P (2000) Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews 24 (2000) 417–463

12 Gardner, M and Steinberg, L (2005), Peer Influence on Risk Taking, Risk Preference, and Risky Decision Making in Adolescence and Adulthood: An Experimental Study. Developmental Psychology 41 pp625-635

13 Chein, J., Albert, D., O’Brien, L., Uckert, K. and Steinberg, L. (2011), Peers increase adolescent risk taking by enhancing activity in the brain’s reward circuitry. Developmental Science, 14: F1–F10. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-7687.2010.01035.x

14 Mirnics et al., (2001) Analysis of complex brain disorders with gene expression microarrays: schizophrenia as a disease of the synapse. Trends in Neuroscience Vol.24 No.8 pp.479-486

15 Benes, F and Beretta, S (2001) GABAergic Interneurons: Implications for Understanding Schizophrenia and Bipolar Disorder. Neuropsychopharmacology. 2001 Jul;25(1):1-27

16 Forbes, E and Dahl, R (2005) Neural Systems of Positive Affect: Relevance to Understanding Child and Adolescent Depression? Developmental Psychopathology17(3) 827-850.

17 National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, Excessive Stress Disrupts the Architecture of the Developing Brain. (2005). Working Paper No. 3., Summer 2005.

18 Vaillancourt, T et al (2008) Variation in Hypothalamic–Pituitary–Adrenal Axis Activity Among Bullied and Non-bullied Children. Aggressive Behaviour Vol 34 294-305

19 Teicher MH, Samson JA, Sheu Y-S, Polcari A, McGreenery CE: Hurtful words: association of exposure to peer verbal abuse with elevated psychiatric symptom scores and corpus callosum abnormalities. Am J Psychiatry 167:1464–1471 (abstract only)

20 Coleman, JC and Hendry LB (1999) The Nature of Adolescence. London. Routledge.

21 Clough et al, Mental Toughness and Brain Structures (abstract only, date unknown)

22 Cavanna, A and Trimble, M (2006) The precuneus: a review of its functional anatomy and ent/early/2006/01/06/brain.awl004.full.pdf

23 Lenroot, R.K. and Giedd, J.N (2011) Sex differences in the adolescent brain. Brain Cogn. 2010 February; 72(1): 46.

24 Amunts, K., Schleicher, A., Burgel, U., Mohlberg, H., Uylings, H. B., & Zilles, K. (1999). Broca’s region revisited: Cytoarchitecture and intersubject variability. Journal of Comparative Neurology, 412, 319 –341.

25 Coney, J. (2002). Lateral asymmetry in phonological processing: Relating behavioral measures to neuroimaged structures. Brain and Language, 80, 355 –365.

26 Morrongiello, B.A. and Rennie, H (1998) Why Do Boys Engage in More Risk Taking Than Girls? The Role of Attributions, Beliefs, and Risk Appraisals. Journal of Pediatric Psychology, Vol. 23, No. 1, pp. 33-43

27 Chein, J., Albert, D., O’Brien, L., Uckert, K. and Steinberg, L. (2011), Peers increase adolescent risk taking by enhancing activity in the brain’s reward circuitry. Developmental Science, 14: F1–F10. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-7687.2010.01035.x

28 Lenroot et al (2007) Sexual dimorphism of brain developmental trajectories during childhood and adolescence," NeuroImage, volume 36, number 4, pages 1065-1073, July 15 2007

29 Royal Society (2011) Brain Waves Module 2:Neuroscience: implications for education and lifelong learning

30 Cunha, F., Heckman, J. J. & Schennach, S. M. Estimating the Technology of Cognitive and Noncognitive Skill Formation. Econometrica 78, 883-931, doi:10.3982/ecta6551 (2010).

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