You are on page 1of 3

NIDA6_INS4_Stu Mag 2/8/08 1:59 PM Page 2

WWW.SCHOLASTIC.COM/HEADSUP

Teens and
Decision Making:
What Brain Science
Reveals
HEADS UP
HEADS UP
REAL NEWS
ABOUT DRUGS
AND YOUR BODY

Do you ever act before thinking? Have you ever wondered why? Do you worry this
might create problems? If you answered yes to any of these questions, read on.
icture this: Your finger is poised on the First, a bit on how a brain makes

P send button, your eyes scanning an


angry e-mail youve dashed off to a
friend who has upset you. Some things
youve written are a little harsh. In
your brain a little red light goes off, but, what the
heck, youre steamed and your friend deserves it.
You push the button.
decisions. Decisions dont just happen
automatically in your conscious mind. They
stem from a series of events in the brain,
which happen almost instantaneously.
This involves a relay system in which different
structuresmade up of specialized cells
called neuronstalk with each other by
Photo: Denis Felix/Getty Images.

Whether youre aware or not, rushed decisions way of electrochemical impulses and
like thisacting before thinking it through chemical messengers, called neurotransmitters.
happen more often in teens than in adults. Recent Information flowing through this decision-
discoveries in brain science may help explain why making circuit is analyzed in the different
this is so. structures. Then the network, as a whole,

FROM SCHOLASTIC AND THE SCIENTISTS OF THE NATIONAL INSTITUTE ON DRUG ABUSE, NATIONAL INSTITUTES OF HEALTH, U.S. DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES
NIDA6_INS4_Stu Mag 2/8/08 1:59 PM Page 3

puts out a response. This output provides the health consequences. Most kids dont really
basis for our behaviors and actions. plan to use drugs, says Professor Laurence
While this process is basically the same for Steinberg of Temple University, at least not the
teens and adults, the devil is in the details. Since first time. They are more likely to experiment
the brain is not fully developed until the early on the spur of the moment, particularly when
20s, the way in which a teens decision-making influenced by others [peer pressure].
circuit integrates information may put him or her
at a higher risk of making decisions the teen FINE-TUNING THE BRAIN
could later regret. Like the Cell body
rest of the Dendrites
THE TEEN BRAIN: body, the
Under Construction brain needs
Not long ago, scientists thought the human to mature in
Axon
brain was fully mature long before the teen order to
years. While research shows that ones brain reach peak Direction
reaches its maximum size between ages 12 and of impulse
performance. Myelin
14 (depending on whether you are a girl or a sheath
This process Axon
terminals
boy), it also shows that brain development is far involves slow
from complete. Regions of the brain continue to changes
mature all the way through a persons early 20s. strongly
A key brain region that matures late is influenced by Cell body

the prefrontal cortex, located directly behind brain Synapse


your forehead. The prefrontal cortex is very activitythat Dendrites
important as a control center for thinking ahead have evolved
and sizing up risks and rewards. (This area is, to fine tune A synapse is the small space where an
in fact, the little red light that was trying to (or optimize) axon and dendrite exchange information.
warn you about sending that e-mail.) Meanwhile, how neural impulses flow throughout the brain,
another part of the brain that matures earlier is allowing it to process information faster and
the limbic system, which plays a central role in more reliably.
emotional responses. Inside the brain, information travels
Since the limbic system matures earlier, through a network of neurons, which have
it is more likely to gain an upper hand in thread-like fibers called axons and branch-like
decision making. This relationship between the structures called dendrites. Dendrites bring
emotional center (limbic system) and control information into the neurons, while axons take
center (prefrontal cortex) helps to explain a it away and pass it along to the next neuron.
teens inclination to rush decisions. In other Thus, neurons are assembled into circuits where
words, when teens make choices in emotionally the far end of an axon (its terminal) is positioned
charged situations, those choices are often more close to a dendrite. The small space between the
weighted in feelings (the mature limbic system) two is called a synapsewhere information is
over logic (the not-yet-mature prefrontal cortex). exchanged.
This is also why teens are more likely to make Throughout childhood and adolescence, the
bad choices, such as using drugs, alcohol, and brain is busy fine-tuning itself through two key
tobaccoall of which pose a risk of serious processes: myelination and synaptic pruning.

FROM SCHOLASTIC AND THE SCIENTISTS OF THE NATIONAL INSTITUTE ON DRUG ABUSE, NATIONAL INSTITUTES OF HEALTH, U.S. DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES
NIDA6_INS4_Stu Mag 2/8/08 1:59 PM Page 4

In myelination, axons wrap themselves in a appropriate behaviors, they are helping to shape
fatty substance (myelin sheath), which works like their brainsand their futures.
the insulating plastic that surrounds electrical
wires. This boosts the brains efficiency by WAIT A MINUTE!
increasing the speed with which a signal travels Learning how your brain works can help
down the axon by up to 100 times. In synaptic explain why sometimes you behave like you do.
pruning, synapses not used very often are With this knowledge, you can be better equipped
removed, allowing the brain to redirect precious to make smart choices.
resources toward more active synapses. This One tip to follow is to take a moment before
strategic loss of weak synapses shapes the brain acting. When making a decision, something as
and makes it more efficient. This important simple as stopping to think can mean the
pruning process molds the brain in response difference between a positive and a negative
to a persons experiences and activities. outcome. By waiting a minute before acting,
This means you allow yourself to:
that teens have consider consequences;
the potential, weigh harmful outcomes (e.g., harm to
through their yourself or others) against short-term benefits
choices and the (e.g., fitting in or feeling high);
behaviors they
determine whether peer pressure is making
engage in, to
you do something youd otherwise not do;
shape their
own brain get information or advice, if you need it.
development
strengthening some circuits and getting rid of For more information about drugs and your
others. This makes the type of activities teens are body, visit http://teens.drugabuse.gov and
involved in especially important. Skill-building www.scholastic.com/headsup.
activities, such as many physical, learning, and
To learn more about pausing to allow
creative endeavors, not only provide stimulating
yourself to make smart choices, check out
challenges, but can simultaneously build strong
www.myspace.com/pause.
brain pathways. When teens learn and repeat

FROM SCHOLASTIC AND THE SCIENTISTS OF THE NATIONAL INSTITUTE ON DRUG ABUSE, NATIONAL INSTITUTES OF HEALTH, U.S. DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES