As a rule, teenagers are substantially more likely than adults to act in highly impulsive ways. This is important, since high levels of impulsive behavior increase the odds for involvement in clearly risky behaviors such as drug or alcohol use/abuse, unprotected sex and acts of physical or sexual violence.
In a study published in 2014 in the journal Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, researchers from the University of Texas at Dallas used brain scans and information from a federal project called the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Survey to see if it’s possible to identify unusually risk-prone teenagers with real-time brain images.
Teenagers And Impulsive Behavior
Most adults past the age of 25 have a fully developed set of higher-level mental skills known collectively as executive function. These skills include such things as the ability to use past experiences to put present experiences in perspective, the ability to foresee the potential negative outcomes of a current course of action, the ability to make logical decisions and the ability to control the impulsive behavioral urges that commonly arise in the vast majority of human beings.
Unlike adults, teenagers have not yet gone through the final stages of brain development that are required for complete executive function. Instead, they typically fall somewhere on the spectrum between the largely uncontrolled impulses of early childhood and the largely controlled impulses of adulthood. This middle ground leaves at least some teens at high risk for involvement in behaviors that have seriously or severely negative potential outcomes. Current evidence indicates that part of any given adolescent’s relative tendency toward impulsive behavior has a genetic basis.
Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Survey
The Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Survey is conducted at two-year intervals by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It uses a representative group of high-schoolers to estimate the nationwide, state and local levels of participation in activities known to significantly increase the chances that a teenager will experience life-altering or potentially life-threatening mental or physical health problems.
Specific examples of activities monitored by the survey include consumption of alcohol or drugs (including nicotine/tobacco), involvement in any behavior that increases the odds of being seriously injured either intentionally or unintentionally, involvement in a sedentary day-to-day lifestyle, failure to regularly consume a health-supporting diet and participation in sexual practices that increase the odds for disease transmission or accidental pregnancy. The CDC completed the most recent version of the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Survey in 2013. The 13,000-plus participants in that year came from 42 of the 50 U.S. states and almost two dozen school districts in key urban areas.
Results Of Brain Imaging
In the study published in Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, the University of Texas at Dallas researchers used a form of real-time brain imaging called fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) to examine the brains of 36 preteens and teenagers between the ages of 12 and 17. Eighteen of these participants had taken prescreening tests that identified them as high risk for involvement in substance use, unsafe sexual practices and/or acts of intentional violence. The remaining 18 participants did not have heightened risks for involvement in these kinds of dangerous activities.
During the fMRI exams, the researchers looked at the ways in which various areas of each person’s brain communicated; they specifically focused their attention on communication between brain areas that help control emotional responses and the amount of reward produced by engagement in pleasure-generating activities. After completing the fMRI testing, the researchers concluded that the 18 study participants with a tendency toward high-risk behavior had unusually elevated levels of baseline activity in the brain networks responsible for regulating emotional control and the amount of rewarding sensation produced in the brain’s pleasure center.
The study’s authors believe that their findings may indicate that an unusually high level of baseline communication in key brain areas at least partially explains why some teenagers are more likely than others to act in highly risky ways. They specifically note that none of the risk-taking teens enrolled in the project had substance-related problems severe enough to merit a diagnosis of substance abuse or substance addiction. However, a general pattern of risk-taking may increase the chances of receiving such a diagnosis in the future. The authors also note that, as a rule, the risk-taking teens had a substantially lower socioeconomic status than the non-risk-taking teens.