The study of teen brain development has progressed significantly in the past decade, thanks to rapidly advancing imaging technology. Researchers can now use sensitive scanning equipment to observe and monitor the development of neural networks and connections, many of which govern cognition and behavior.
Although science has much left to discover, we do know the importance of this formative period in determining future mental health.
Brain Development, Function and Behavior
At birth, few neural networks are yet formed in the human brain. Instead, they evolve over the course of a child’s development. The way in which these pathways develop dictates how the individual’s brain will function in adulthood.
Between the ages of 12 and 18, the most critical networks form. Reproductive hormones bring about major changes in the brain as well as the body. Finally, the neural circuitry that will regulate problem-solving and impulse control are some of the last to develop, not becoming fully formed until the late teens or early 20s in some people.
Many Unanswered Questions
What we don’t yet know is as important as what we do know. Science continues to investigate how past experiences and environmental influences (social and emotional as well as chemical) affect brain development. The neural networks formed during adolescence and the teen years influence such important factors as emotional intelligence in adulthood and the ability to learn.
Although researchers aren’t yet certain why, we do know that many forms of mental illness emerge first during the teen years.
Evidence is mounting that exposure to harmful chemicals, poor nutrition and elevated levels of stress can hinder neural development. Many links have been established between environmental conditions of this nature and the later development of emotional and behavioral problems.
The Puzzle of Teenage Health
Adolescent and teen bodies, although still growing and developing, are the strongest and most resilient of any life stage. Despite this, young people have an unusually high mortality rate. Beginning at about age 15, the mortality rate jumps almost sixfold. Substance abuse and crime rates climb alarmingly during this period as well.
The research demonstrates that these factors are related directly to developmental factors that affect mental and emotional processes as well as behavior.1 It is important for parents and caregivers to understand how vulnerable children are, and this increases significantly around the time of puberty.
Havenwood Academy provides residential treatment programs designed to assist girls and young women in overcoming mental and behavioral challenges, allowing them to regain health and happiness. If you suspect a developmental problem in your daughter or another young woman in your care, contact us today. We can help you find the resources and assistance you need, and explain more about the ongoing mystery of teen brain development.