Watch and read the full transcript of UCLA researcher Adriana Galván’s TEDx Talk: Insight Into the Teenage Brain at TEDxYouth@Caltech Conference.
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Adriana Galván – Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology and Brain Research Institute at UCLA
Hi, thank you.
I love, love, love your enthusiasm. Your energy and excitement is really what makes me love my job, and my job is to study the adolescent brain. I’m a scientist at UCLA, as Jake said.
So scientists have studied the brain for centuries, but it’s only been in the last 15 years or so that we’ve discovered one of the most fascinating things. And that is that your brain changes every single day. As you sit in this room, your brain is changing in response to my voice, in response to the person next to you. And your experiences and the people you affiliate with shape the way your brain ultimately develops.
We also know that the brain matures and continues to do so past childhood and into the teenage years and well into your mid-20s. So most of you in this room today, as middle and high school students, don’t yet have a fully mature brain. But this is actually really beneficial, if we think about one of the functions of adolescence, which is to establish your independence from a caregiver, because your brain as an adolescent is built to help you do that.
Compared to children and adults, the teenage brain is really good at seeking out new experiences, enjoying thrills and seeking out risks. It’s also really good at recognizing social or being sensitive to social and emotional information. And so for that reason, the teenage brain is really responsive to rewards and emotions when making decisions.
And in my laboratory at UCLA, and in laboratories all around the world, we’re interested in uncovering that very question: How does a teenage brain make decisions?
One of the first discoveries relevant to this topic was made when we discovered that the part of your brain in the very front, called the prefrontal cortex, which is the last brain region to develop, because your brain develops from the back to the front, continues to change up until the mid-20s. And the reason this is relevant is because the prefrontal cortex is a part of your brain that helps you think about the consequences or potential consequences of your actions before you do them. It helps you regulate your behavior and your emotions. And so it makes sense that if this part of the brain isn’t fully available until well past adolescence, then teenagers may make more impulsive decisions with less regard for the potential future consequences.
But we now know that the story is far more interesting and complicated than that. And in fact, what we really need to do is think about how brain regions that are not at the surface of your brain, but in the deeper layers, how they change. And one region we focus on is called the striatum. And the striatum is the key component of the reward system. So when you receive something that you find rewarding, your striatum is very responsive and it releases something called dopamine. And this is the case not just in humans, but in kids, in mice, in rats, in monkeys. All of these organisms respond really with a lot of excitement in their brain when they get something they like.
So in my lab, we study this reward system across development, especially in teenagers. And we do that by asking people to come to the laboratory and perform what is called a Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging Scan, or fMRI. And the beauty of fMRI is that you can take a snapshot of the brain in motion. So while you are experiencing something you like, or while you are making a decision, we capture how your brain is responding to that, how your brain is active.
And so, to study the reward system, what we did is not simply show people pictures of reward, which is what mostly happens in brain imaging studies. But instead what we did is we actually gave someone a reward and what’s something that people find rewarding? Sugar. So what we did is we asked people to come to the lab, we asked a group of teenagers and a group of adults, and, while they were in the MRI, we hooked them up to a straw and we fed them squirts of sugar water ever so often.
And first, we asked them whether they liked it. Maybe they weren’t going to like the sugar as much as we thought. But they actually did. This is the rating scale asking them, “How much do you like the sugar?” And the average response is in red for the teenage group and the adults is shown in white. And you can see that everybody liked it, but it’s the teenage group that showed this exaggerated sensitivity. They really liked it. So we started to wonder whether there was something neurobiological that represented this difference.
So, instead of focusing on the prefrontal cortex, which is what a lot of brain scientists who study adolescents do, we looked at the deeper layers of the brain. So in this image, which is actually a real human brain image averaged together among all our participants, we saw that, in the deeper layers, here represented with this yellow activation, the striatum was really excited to the sugar water, and this was across all age groups.