Negative risk-taking behavior during adolescence is often a parent’s greatest fear, and for good reason: Studies have shown that educational programs and parent nagging do little to change negative risk-taking during the teen years because these behaviors are intricately linked to natural physiological changes in the brain.
In a new study published in NeuroImage, researchers from the University of Delaware sought to understand the nuances of why some teens take more risks than others. The study points out that risk-taking can have both negative and positive outcomes for young people. The goal of this research was to understand the mechanisms that drive adolescents to engage in irrational or dangerous behavior and the potential mediators of these risk-taking tendencies.
Brain Structure vs. Function
Researchers studied the brain structure of 40 healthy adolescents, ages 12-14, through magnetic resonance elastography (MRE). This differs from many previous studies that have used functional MRI’s (fMRI) to examine regions of the adolescent brain that light up when certain tasks are performed.
It was hypothesized that brain maturation may be more structural than functional, and thus a different way of observing the neural system in adolescents may produce new insights. Specifically, the researchers theorized that two different brain systems—the reward and control systems—and the variations between them may add additional understanding to why some teens are more susceptible to negative risk-taking than others.
During the brain scanning, participants completed several computerized behavioral tasks that assessed their risk-taking tendencies and modeled real-world risky behaviors. Participants and their guardians also completed questionnaires related to puberty. This helped researchers assess differences in development among subjects.
How Physiology Affects Adolescent Risk-Taking
The research study found that risk-taking tendencies correlated highly with differences between the reward and control systems of the brain. These systems are described as counterbalancing each other. The reward system is considered social-emotional in nature while the control system is cognitively focused and responsible for regulating reward-seeking impulses.
This study showed that the reward and control systems mature at different rates in different adolescents. When the two systems grow together simultaneously, risk-taking is minimized. But when this maturation is out of balance, a teenager is susceptible to greater risk-taking tendencies. In addition, neither neural system is independently related to risk-taking. Rather, it is the difference between the systems that is the culprit of negative risk-taking.
This is the first study to show that brain function in healthy adolescents can differ widely and that those differences affect risk-taking tendencies.
For parents, this study offers additional information about why one child may be engaged in more risk-taking than other children. However, there are many more questions that need answers before scientists can offer effective advice on how to help these two brain systems work more effectively together.
McIlvain, G., Clements, R. G., Magoon, E. M., Spielberg, J. M., Telzer, E. H., & Johnson, C. L. (2020). Viscoelasticity of reward and control systems in adolescent risk taking. NeuroImage, 215, 116850, doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuroimage.2020.116850.