Document: The wonder of the teen brain.doc
Author: Michael Emslie
Save Date: 17/11/2009
Page 1 of 3
The wonder of the teen brain
March 30, 2009
A teenage brain is a work of art in progress. After a spurt in growth before puberty, children end up with
more grey matter - the nerve cells that let us think - than they will ever have again. Adolescence is, then, a
time of rapid pruning back, a discarding of unwanted neural connections which sees grey matter lost in a
wave from the back of the brain to the front.
A University of Melbourne neuroscientist, Professor Stephen Wood, likens this refining of our most
important organ to a sculpture being created, as unwanted bits are chipped away. "You end up with less
stone or clay, but it is a better finished work," he says.
Recent brain-imaging studies show the honing process is not complete until young people have reached
their early to mid-20s. The front parts of the brain that control judgment and caution are the last to
mature, which helps explain why teenagers have a reputation for being impulsive, emotionally volatile
Meanwhile, young people's surging hormones are driving a desire to seek out new thrills and experiences,
especially for boys.
"There is a developmental mismatch, with increased drive and no brakes," Professor Wood says.
Some researchers are critical that findings about the teenage brain can be used to reinforce negative
stereotypes of adolescents and threaten their human rights, but the brain scans also provide insights into
the special vulnerability of young people to addictive substances and mental illness.
They reinforce, too, that the teen years are not just a time of risk, but one of opportunity, creativity and
learning. And with the brain still plastic, it is a period when the right kind of intervention - in particular,
firm but warm care from adults with high expectations of a teenag