MILES O’BRIEN: Dealing with teens can be rough;
they’re moody and sometimes they’re not the best decision makers.
So what makes a teen act like a teen? ADRIANA GALVAN: Teenagers experience stress as
more stressful, and if that stress is interfering with their decision making, it’s really important
to understand the neural mechanism that’s underlying this connection between high levels of
stress and poor decision making. MILES O’BRIEN: With help from the National Science
Foundation, UCLA psychologist Adriana Galvan is conducting a pioneering study on the effect of stress
on brain function in adolescents and adults. Participants report their stress level daily and come
in for a test when they feel stressed out. ADRIANA GALVAN: Okay. Her brain looks good.
She’s in the right position. MILES O’BRIEN: In this demonstration, 18-year-old
Nilufer Rustomji plays some risk and reward games while Galvan watches her brain function using
magnetic resonance imaging or MRI. She looks through a pair of specialized goggles,
playing a game that involves wagering money. ADRIANA GALVAN: She’s evaluating the risk and
while she’s doing that evaluation, we’re taking pictures of her brain to see how the brain
makes risky choices. MILES O’BRIEN: The images show how stress and
risk combine to fire up what Galvan calls the reward system in teen brains. ADRIANA GALVAN: The teenagers show more
activation in the reward system than adults when making a risky choice, and they’re also making
more risky choices than the adults are. MILES O’BRIEN: Complicating matters, a teen’s
prefrontal cortex is not fully developed. That’s the part of the brain that controls the kinds
of behaviors that teens could put to use in stressful situations. ADRIANA GALVAN: Double checking, thinking about
the future, thinking about how your consequences today are gonna impact you later.
So what happens is that when you’re stressed out as a teenager, it’s interfering with your ability
to make decisions because it’s interfering with how the brain functions in regions that are still
developing, mainly the reward system and the prefrontal cortex. MILES O’BRIEN: So the next time a teen gets
under your skin, try and remember what’s going on inside theirs.
For Science Nation, I’m Miles O’Brien.