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Adolescence is defined as a stage that involves physical, intellectual, social and hormonal development, from childhood to adulthood. Adolescence is both exciting and confusing, due to the transformations and changes that occur in the individual’s body. It is characterized by locomotor activity, novelty seeking, increased risk-taking, due to an increased appetitive drive. Adolescence is a stage of elevated activity in the body systems. The pubertal switch to adulthood entails both behavioral and gonad maturation. Scientific discovery through magnetic resonance imaging studies have certain findings. The process of development of myelin sheaths around the fibers of the central nervous system requires proper insulation and efficient communication and control in systems involved in this transformation. The region in the brain specifically neurocircuitry remains functionally and structurally susceptible to food, impulsive sex and sleep habits (Arain et al, 2013). The development to maturity of the adolescent brain depends on factors such as the environment, heredity, and sex hormones. These play an essential function in myelination. The impulsive, immature behavior and neurobehavioral stimulation during adolescence may be due to the predominant glutamatergic neurotransmission while the gamma-aminobutyric acid is still developing (Arain et al, 2013). It is now shown that several major functional and morphological changes take place in the brain during adolescence.
The adolescent brain remains in its dynamic state of maturation; it is functionally and structurally susceptible to risky behavior, environmental stress, drug addiction, impaired driving, and unprotected sex (Hypothesis). In order to give a clear understanding on the morphology and function of the brain during adolescence, a lot of research has been made in the past years. This has been illustrated through functional genomics studies and molecular imaging that have shown the active state of development of the brain during adolescences (Arain et al, 2013). For example, changes in the limbic system may have an impact on decision making, self-control, risk-taking behaviors and emotions.
Adolescence is characterized by neurobiological changes including shift in brain matter composition, and modifications of neural synchrony. In addition to increased hormonal release and neurochemical alterations. Much work focuses on the brain structure and attempts to describe the unique pattern during adolescence in the context of emotional and cognitive behaviors. This has led to the findings of regions in the brain where activation patterns are specific in adolescents as compared to children and adults. These brain regions perform emotional and cognitive tasks, which leads to renewed brain systems conceptualizations and operations in a unique manner during this period (Arain et al, 2013).
Furthermore, the adolescent brain develops its ability to regulate impulses, organize, and weigh risks; however, this shift can make adolescents more susceptible to risk-taking behavior. Thus, brain maturation is a significant feature of the general adolescent development. Fundamental knowledge of the process might assist to understand adolescent intellectual performance, sexual behavior, and pregnancy issues (Arain et al, 2013). Several other important aspects of development of adolescents are due to changes in cognitive, psychosocial, physical characteristics, and attitudes toward independence and intimacy. These may control brain maturation (Arain et al, 2013).
Development of the Adolescent Brain
As discussed, various physiological and morphological changes occur in the brain during adolescence. Hence, one of the most dynamic processes of human development and growth occurs during adolescence. In fact, there are distinctive developmental changes during the shift from childhood to adulthood that occurs in almost all individuals during the adolescence stage. It has been found that the brain undergoes a reconstruction process that is completed after adolescence.
Studies have confirmed a second course of neuronal growth that takes place just before puberty. This is similar to that during infancy and involves thickening of the grey matter. The brain rewires specifically in the prefrontal cortex occurring after neuronal proliferation, from the beginning of puberty until the end of the adolescence stage. This is as a result of myelination and dendritic pruning, where myelination increases the impulse conduction speed across the brain specifically the neurocircuitry whereas, dendritic pruning eliminates the unused synapses and is generally regarded as a beneficial process (Choudhury, Blakemore & Charman, 2006). The communication of information across the central nervous system and enhancement of the information processing speed is facilitated by myelination. Thus, myelination and dendritic pruning are very significant in ensuring proper neurocybernetics in the adolescentââ‚¬â„¢s brain.
There are three central nervous system neurotransmitters that play an influential role in the adolescent behavior and brain maturation, which are serotonin, dopamine, and melatonin. Brain events that control emotional response, movement, and the ability to experience pain and pleasure are influenced by dopamine. Its levels reduce during adolescence, leading to mood swings and difficulties in controlling emotions. Serotonin is responsible for anxiety, mood alterations, arousal, and impulse control. Its levels also diminish during adolescence, hence, the decreased impulse control. Finally, melatonin controls the sleepââ‚¬”wake cycle and circadian rhythms. The daily melatonin production increases the necessity for sleep during adolescence (Choudhury, Blakemore & Charman, 2006).
Studies have offered a link between white matter, sex hormones, and the functional connectivity in the brain. Sex hormones manage connections and brain activation. These could trigger a better integration of functional and structural communication within regions of the brain. Specifically, ovarian hormones may enhance both subcorticocortical and corticocortical functional connectivity, whereas testosterone may diminish functional connectivity of the subcorticocortical, but boost subcortical functional connectivity within brain areas. Therefore, sex hormones and their contribution cannot be ignored when examining brain aging and development (Arain et al, 2013).
Neurobehavioral, neurochemical, morphological, and pharmacological evidence suggests that the brain continuously develop during adolescence. Thus, the maturation of myelination and neurocircuitry during adolescence consolidates the neurocybernetics. Although axonogenesis, tubulinogenesis, and synaptogenesis may be done during prenatal and postnatal life, during adolescent life, myelinogenesis remains active (Arain et al, 2013).
The effects of hormones especially on reproductive activities are determined by changes in the adolescent brain which happen independently of sex organs maturation. Therefore, reproductive maturity is as a result of brain-driven, developmentally timed, and interactions between the adolescent nervous system and steroid hormones (Choudhury, Blakemore & Charman, 2006).. During adolescence, enhanced ability to solve problems, multitasking, and the ability of processing complex information is due to the development of the neurocircuitry. Furthermore, brain plasticity facilitates the development of talents and life time interests; however, trauma, neurotoxic insult, chronic stress, inactive lifestyles and drug abuse, have a negative impact at this period of brain maturation.
Adolescent Brain, Behavioral Problems and Puberty
Characteristics of the adolescent population may involve driving under the influence of alcohol, and inadequate social adjustment. This is because of an immature prefrontal cortex and limbic system. Abuse of drugs such as caffeine, alcohol, cigarettes and environmental neurotoxins during adolescence influences the discharge of neurotransmitters and synaptic plasticity. The individuals may be involved with irresponsible behavior, offensive crimes, unprotected sex, and some can even be jailed (Wahlstrom, Collins, White & Luciana, 2010).
According to earlier reports, the main cause of teenage death is due to violence and injury related to substance abuse and sex. Maturation of the adolescent brain may also be affected significantly by cigarette smoking, alcohol consumption, and prenatal neglect. Regulation of adolescent behavior through pharmacological interventions has not been successful due to sex, age, nutritional status, disease, and substance abuse (Arain et al, 2013).
Hormones are not the only cause of the distinct behavior during adolescence. There is, therefore, interrelationship between pubertal and adolescent brain maturation processes. Brain changes can be categorized into three. These include changes that are the result of puberty, brain changes associated to puberty and changes that occur at the end of puberty (Wahlstrom, Collins, White & Luciana, 2010). These changes occur in the brain regions and are closely related to arousal, emotions, motivation, sleep patterns and appetite.
The cognitive processes specific in adolescence, causes the brain to synthesis myelin in the frontal lobe. Brain maturation in the adolescence stage could be due to factors such as nutritional status, sleep patterns, heredity and environment, prenatal and postnatal neglect, and pharmacotherapy. On the other hand, the development of dopaminergic neurotransmission, which is regulated by sex hormones, is responsible for drug seeking behavior in adolescence. Indeed, adolescents are novelty-seeking and risk-takers, and are more likely to take negative experiences less heavily and positive experiences more so than adults. This can lead to engagement in risky activities including unprotected sex, reckless driving and drug abuse. In fact, the majority of drug addicts begin the practice during adolescence, and such is usually associated with elevated incidence of physical dependence and tolerance (Wahlstrom, Collins, White & Luciana, 2010).
The hormonal changes contribute to emotional, physical, intellectual, and social changes. These changes not only induce development of secondary sex characteristics and maturation of reproductive function, but also contribute to sex disparity in non-reproductive behaviors. Physical changes, including sexual maturation and accelerated body growth occur simultaneously along with, cognitive, social and emotional development, during adolescence (Wahlstrom, Collins, White & Luciana, 2010).
The evidence discussed shows that the adolescent brain remains in its dynamic state of maturation throughout adolescence. Such evidence backs the hypothesis that the adolescent brain is functionally and structurally susceptible to risky behavior, environmental stress, drug addiction, impaired driving, and unprotected sex (Arain et al, 2013).
Evidence in neurochemical shows that glutamatergic neurotransmission occurs during prenatal and postnatal life while during adolescence, gamma-aminobutyric acid neurotransmission, remains under construction. Therefore, neurobehavioral excitement such as risk-taking behavior and euphoria is due to delayed development of gamma-aminobutyric acid neurotransmission. Furthermore, it is evident that the development of excitatory neurotransmission occurs earlier in brain development as compared to other neurotransmission (Choudhury, Blakemore & Charman, 2006).
The major differences between adults and adolescents are on inhibitory control, behavioral measures of decision, planning, and working memory. Prefrontal cortex is the last region to attain a maturational plateau while the synaptic structure becomes refined during adolescence. Frontal-limbic patterns of adolescents differ from that of children and adults. However, none of the above brain substrates underlies the tendencies of adolescents to choose risky alternatives when in a situation that offers both risky and safe options (Wahlstrom, Collins, White & Luciana, 2010).
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