1. Young binge drinkers show altered brain activity

    September 23, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Frontiers press release:

    Researchers have studied the brain activity of young binge-drinking college students in Spain, and found distinctive changes in brain activity, which may indicate delayed brain development and be an early sign of brain damage.

    For many students, college involves a lot of socializing at parties and at bars, and alcohol is a common factor in these social environments. Excessive alcohol use, in the form of binge drinking, is extremely common among college students, and one study has estimated that as many as one third of young North Americans and Europeans binge drink.

    So, what defines binge drinking? The National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism describes a binge as drinking five or more drinks for men and four or more for women within a two-hour period, and for many college students, these limits wouldn’t equate to a particularly heavy night. Previous research has linked binge drinking to a variety of negative consequences including neurocognitive deficits, poor academic performance, and risky sexual behavior.

    While numerous studies have shown that the brains of chronic alcoholics have altered brain activity, there is also evidence that bingeing can change adolescents’ brains. Eduardo López-Caneda, of the University of Minho in Portugal, investigates this phenomenon.

    “A number of studies have assessed the effects of binge drinking in young adults during different tasks involving cognitive processes such as attention or working memory,” says López-Caneda. “However, there are hardly any studies assessing if the brains of binge drinkers show differences when they are at rest, and not focused on a task.”

    In a recent study published in Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, López-Caneda and colleagues set out to see if the resting brains of binge-drinking college students showed any differences compared with those of their non-bingeing counterparts.

    The researchers recruited first year college students from a university in Spain, and asked them to complete a questionnaire about their drinking habits. Students that had participated in at least one binge within the previous month were considered to be binge drinkers, whereas non-bingers had never binged before. By attaching electrodes to the students’ scalps, the scientists could assess electrical activity in various brain regions.

    Compared with the non-bingers, the binge drinkers demonstrated altered brain activity at rest. They showed significantly higher measurements of specific electrophysiological parameters, known as beta and theta oscillations, in brain regions called the right temporal lobe and bilateral occipital cortex.

    Surprisingly, previous studies have found very similar alterations in the brains of adult chronic alcoholics. While the young bingers in this study might occasionally consume alcohol to excess, they did not fit the criteria for alcoholism. So, what does this mean?

    The changes might indicate a decreased ability to respond to external stimuli and potential difficulties in information processing capacity in young binge drinkers, and may represent some of the first signs of alcohol-induced brain damage.

    The brains of adolescents are still developing, meaning that they might be more vulnerable to the effects of alcohol abuse. “These features might be down to the particularly harmful effects of alcohol on young brains that are still in development, perhaps by delaying neuromaturational processes,” says López-Caneda.

    The researchers stress that they need to carry out further studies to confirm if the features they have observed in these young binge drinkers are caused by their bingeing, and if their brain development might be impaired. However, the results suggest that bingeing has tangible effects on the young brain, comparable with some of those seen in chronic alcoholics. “It would be a positive outcome if educational and health institutions used these results to try to reduce alcohol consumption in risky drinkers,” says López-Caneda.


  2. Study suggests teens’ ability to consider the intentions of others linked to structural changes in the brain

    September 21, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Dartmouth College press release:

    When it comes to the concept of fairness, teenagers’ ability to consider the intentions of others appears to be linked to structural changes underway in the brain, according to a Dartmouth-led study published by Scientific Reports. The study is the first to provide evidence linking structural changes with behavioral changes within this context. (See video: https://youtu.be/uLv5da5wvus.) Understanding the intentions of others is fundamental to human cooperation and how we exist as social beings.

    Understanding the intentions of others is fundamental to human cooperation and how we exist as social beings. Previous studies have demonstrated that certain areas of the social brain relating to how we care about others or “social inference,” continue to undergo cortical development until late adolescence. As demonstrated by the following time-lapse video, these changes include the thinning of the brain’s cortex, which likely reflect synaptic reorganization in how brain regions are connected and communicate with each other. The study is the first to provide evidence linking structural changes with behavioral changes in the brain within the context of fairness concerns.

    For the study, participants between nine and 23-years old took part in an ultimatum game based on the exchange of money. Proposers first selected between two different divisions of $10, and responders then decided whether to accept or reject the chosen division. Researchers evaluated how participants used two different cognitive strategies when making their decision using computational modeling, and then investigated how these processes correlated with measurements of participants’ cortical thickness, as obtained through magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

    Younger players tended to want to minimize the difference in the division of the money, whereby everyone gets the same amount but as players became older, they were more inclined to consider the other player’s intentions. This shift from a simple rule-based egalitarian strategy to a more sophisticated strategy that considers both the other player’s intentions and notions of reciprocity, was observed during late adolescence. This gradual shift coincided with cortical thinning in the brain, specifically, in areas of the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, which is involved with how we view others’ mental states, and posterior temporal cortex, which is involved in visual perception particularly in processing facial information.

    “This work provides converging evidence in line with other research that the computation of inferring intentions is processed in the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex,” said senior author Luke Chang, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences and the director of the Computational Social Affective Neuroscience Laboratory (Cosan Lab) at Dartmouth. “We were surprised that this shift in preference for considering others’ intentions occurred so late in development. Of course, younger children can infer the intentions of others, but we see that this ability continues to be refined well into late adolescence. This finding has potential implications regarding how much autonomy this age group should be given when making important social and ethical decisions, such as purchasing weapons, going to war, and serving on juries,” added Chang.


  3. Study suggests exclusion from school can trigger long-term psychiatric illness

    September 13, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Exeter press release:

    Excluding children from school may lead to long- term psychiatric problems and psychological distress, a study of thousands of children has shown.

    Research by the University of Exeter, published in the journal Psychological Medicine found that a new onset mental disorder may be a consequence of exclusion from school.

    The study, also found that — separately — poor mental health can lead to exclusion from school.

    Professor Tamsin Ford, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at the University of Exeter’s Medical School, warned that excluded children can develop a range of mental disorders, such as depression and anxiety as well as behavioural disturbance. The impact of excluding a child from school on their education and progress is often long term, and this work suggests that their mental health may also deteriorate.

    The study is the most rigorous study of the impact of exclusion from school among the general population so far and included a standardised assessment of children’s difficulties.

    Consistently poor behaviour in the classroom is the main reason for school exclusion, with many students, mainly of secondary school age, facing repeated dismissal from school. Relatively few pupils are expelled from school, but Professor Ford warned that even temporary exclusions can amplify psychological distress.

    Professor Ford, who practises as a child and adolescent psychiatrist as well as carrying out research, said identifying children who struggle in class could, if coupled with tailored support, prevent exclusion and improve their success at school, while exclusion might precipitate future mental disorder. These severe psychological difficulties are often persistent so could then require long-term clinical support by the NHS.

    Professor Ford said: “For children who really struggle at school, exclusion can be a relief as it removes then from an unbearable situation with the result that on their return to school they will behave even more badly to escape again. As such, it becomes an entirely counterproductive disciplinary tool as for these children it encourages the very behaviour that it intends to punish. By avoiding exclusion and finding other solutions to poor behaviour, schools can help children’s mental health in the future as well as their education.”

    Exclusion from school is commoner among boys, secondary school pupils, and those living in socio-economically deprived circumstances. Poor general health and learning disabilities, as well as having parents with mental illness, is also associated with exclusion.

    The analysis by a team led by Professor Ford of responses from over 5000 school-aged children, their parents and their teachers in the British Child and Adolescent Mental Health Surveys collected by the Office of National Statistics on behalf of the Department of Health found that children with learning difficulties and mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, ADHD and autism spectrum conditions were more likely to be excluded from the classroom.

    The research team found more children with mental disorder among those who had been excluded from school, when they followed up on their progress, than those who had not. The research team omitted children who had a previous mental disorder from this analysis.

    The researchers concluded there is a ‘bi-directional association’ between psychological distress and exclusion: children with psychological distress and mental-health problems are more likely to be excluded in the first place but exclusion predicted increased levels of psychological distress three years later.

    Claire Parker, a researcher at the University of Exeter Medical School, who carried out doctoral research on the project said:

    “Although an exclusion from school may only last for a day or two, the impact and repercussions for the child and parents are much wider. Exclusion often marks a turning point during an ongoing difficult time for the child, parent and those trying to support the child in school.”

    Most research into the impact of exclusion has so far involved the study of individuals’ experience and narratives from much smaller groups of people chosen because of their experience, which may not be so representative.

    This study included an analysis of detailed questionnaires filled in by children parents and teachers as well as an assessment of disorder by child psychiatrists, drawing on data from over 5000 children in two linked surveys to allow the researchers to compare their responses with students who had been excluded. This sample from the general population included over 200 children who had experienced at least one exclusion.

    The report concluded: “Support for children whose behaviour challenges school systems is important. Timely intervention may prevent exclusion from school as well as future psychopathology. A number of vulnerable children may face exclusion from school that might be avoided with suitable interventions.”

    Professor Ford added: “Given the established link between children’s behaviour, classroom climate and teachers’ mental health, burn out and self-efficacy, greater availability of timely support for children whose behaviour is challenging might also improve teachers’ productivity and school effectiveness”.


  4. Close friendships in high school predict improvements in mental health in young adulthood

    September 4, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Society for Research in Child Development press release:

    Adolescence is a time of social challenges and changing expectations. While relationships with peers may be important for youth at this time, do they also have implications over time? A new longitudinal study suggests that the types of peer relationships youth make in high school matter for mental health through young adulthood. The study, authored by researchers at the University of Virginia, is published in the journal Child Development.

    “Our research found that the quality of friendships during adolescence may directly predict aspects of long-term mental and emotional health,” according to Rachel K. Narr, PhD candidate in clinical psychology at the University of Virginia, who led the study. “High school students with higher-quality best friendships tended to improve in several aspects of mental health over time, while teens who were popular among their peers during high school may be more prone to social anxiety later in life.”

    The study looked at a community sample of 169 adolescents over 10 years, from the time they were age 15 to when they were 25. The youth were racially, ethnically, and socioeconomically diverse, with 58% Caucasian, 29% African American, and 8% of mixed race/ethnicity, and with median family income $40,000 to $59,999. Adolescents were assessed annually, answering questions about who their closest friends were, reporting on their friendships, and participating in interviews and assessments exploring such feelings as anxiety, social acceptance, self-worth, and symptoms of depression; teens’ close friends also reported on their friendships and were interviewed.

    High-quality friendships were defined as close friendships with a degree of attachment and support, and those that allow for intimate exchanges. Friendship quality was determined from reports by participants’ best friends at age 15. Popularity was defined as the number of peers in the teens’ grade who ranked them as someone they would like to spend time with, and was measured using nominations from all the teens.

    Researchers found that teens who prioritized close friendships at age 15 had lower social anxiety, an increased sense of self-worth, and fewer symptoms of depression by the time they reached age 25 than their peers. Conversely, teens who were broadly sought after in high school — that is, those who were popular among their peers — had higher levels of social anxiety as young adults.

    Neither having a strong best friendship nor being more popular predicted short-term changes in mental health, the researchers note. These differences only became apparent later and they appeared regardless of youth’s experiences in the interim.

    The study’s conclusion: Experiencing strong, intimate friendships during adolescence may help promote long-term mental health. The researchers suggest that this may be because positive experiences with friends help bolster positive feelings about oneself during a stage of life when personal identity is being developed. Also, close friendships may set adolescents on a trajectory to expect and therefore encourage supportive experiences in the future.

    The study also determined that there was a low relation between teens having high-quality friendships and being more sought after by their peers, suggesting that although some teens manage both popularity and close friendship well, and attract both due to similar characteristics, for the most part, these two types of social success are due to different personal attributes.

    “Our study affirms that forming strong close friendships is likely one of the most critical pieces of the teenage social experience,” explains Joseph Allen, Hugh P. Kelly Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia, who coauthored the study. “Being well-liked by a large group of people cannot take the place of forging deep, supportive friendships. And these experiences stay with us, over and above what happens later. As technology makes it increasingly easy to build a social network of superficial friends, focusing time and attention on cultivating close connections with a few individuals should be a priority.”


  5. Peer influence doubles smoking risk for adolescents

    September 2, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Pennsylvania press release:

    The way things stand now, tobacco use will kill one billion people in the 21st century. In the United States, 90 percent of smokers pick up the habit by age 18, making adolescence a critical time for smoking-prevention efforts.

    Peer influence has long been known as a major risk factor for adolescent smoking, but findings have varied about how big the risk is or how this dynamic unfolds. A new, rigorous meta-analysis of 75 longitudinal teen smoking studies published today in the journal Psychological Bulletin finds that having friends who smoke doubles the risk that children ages 10 to 19 will start smoking and continue smoking. It also found that peer influence is more powerful in collectivist cultures than in those where individualism is the norm.

    There has been a great deal of research about peer influences on adolescents, says the study’s senior author, Dolores Albarracín, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, but often findings rely on individual studies. “Meta-analysis is a summary of all we know,” she says, “giving us a more reliable, robust number that is better supported by the facts.”

    “One of our most intriguing findings is that culture actually matters in how much influence adolescents have on their peers,” says the study’s lead author, Jiaying Liu, PhD, a recent graduate of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. “Meta-analysis allowed us to examine studies from across the globe. We predicted that people in collectivistic cultures would be more likely to be influenced by peers around them, and that held true. In those most collectivistic countries, adolescents whose peers smoke are 4.3 times more likely to pick up smoking compared to people who have no peers smoking. By contrast, having peers who smoke made adolescents from those most individualist countries 1.89 times more likely to smoke.”

    The study included data from 16 countries, both collectivistic — for example, China, South Korea, Jordan and Portugal — and individualistic like the United States, Australia, Canada, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom.

    The authors also examined the ethnic origins of the adolescents in each study, regardless of nationality. “We found that peer influence was much weaker in samples with higher proportions of adolescents with a European background, but much stronger in samples with higher proportions of adolescents with an Asian background,” Liu says.

    This finding about ethnic and cultural background may also explain why the results of teen smoking studies have varied in how big an effect peer influence has.

    In addition, the study found that closer friends were more likely to influence peers to start smoking when compared to more distant friends. The closeness of peer friendships did not impact whether adolescents who smoke continued to smoke, however, indicating that perhaps the addictive nature of tobacco was an overriding factor.

    The study was also able to better avoid what is often seen as the “chicken or the egg” problem of peer influence smoking studies: Do teens influence one another to smoke, or do those who smoke simply tend to become friends?

    “By including only longitudinal studies, where peer influence was measured at an earlier time and adolescent smoking outcomes at a later date, we were better able to establish that peer influence led to the adolescent smoking outcomes, rather than the other way around,” says Liu, who will be starting in the fall as an assistant professor in the University of Georgia’s Department of Communication Studies.

    The researchers hope that by providing a better understanding of the risk factors for teen smoking, they can help inform more targeted prevention efforts. By knowing who is most at risk, parents and public health officials alike can give teenagers the tools to resist tobacco.

    “It’s not enough just to say, ‘Don’t smoke it’s bad for you,'” says Albarracín. “How are teenagers going to deal with temptation on a daily basis? We need much more specific campaigns dealing with normative influence — for example, pointing out how many adolescents don’t smoke. There can be more messaging in schools and training for parents on how to build refusal skills in their children.”

    Peer influence is particularly strong in the adolescent years, as children reduce the amount of time spent with parents and increase the amount of unsupervised time spent with peers.

    “This work highlights the importance of considering the networks that surround teens, not just thinking about individuals in isolation,” says co-author Emily Falk, PhD, associate professor at Penn’s Annenberg School for Communication and director of its Communication Neuroscience Lab. “Behaviors spread from person to person, and keeping that in mind is essential for prevention and cure.”

    “The burden of smoking-caused morbidity is heavy around the world,” Liu adds. “If social influence is a crucial factor in adolescents’ decisions to start smoking and keep smoking, we want to understand how to leverage its power for better smoking prevention. It’s always easier to stop people from starting to smoke than to change their behavior later in life.”


  6. Kids learn moral lessons more effectively from stories with humans than human-like animals

    September 1, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Toronto press release:

    A study by researchers at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) at the University of Toronto found that four to six-year-olds shared more after listening to books with human characters than books with anthropomorphic (human-like) animals.

    The findings are noteworthy since so much of children’s media — books, movies, video games, etc. — use human-like animal characters. But since many children in this study did not see these characters as similar to themselves, researchers say they may be less likely to translate social lessons from these stories into their everyday lives.

    “These findings add to a growing body of research showing that children find it easier to apply knowledge from stories that are realistic,” said Dr. Patricia Ganea, Associate Professor of early cognitive development at OISE, University of Toronto. “Overall, children were more likely to act on the moral of the story when it featured a human character.”

    Human versus human-like animal characters

    In the study, children listened to a story with either human or human-like animal characters who spoke and wore clothes. Each book taught children about sharing with others. Children’s altruistic giving was assessed before and after the reading.

    Overall, preschoolers shared more after listening to the book with humans. Children who were read the book with animal characters shared less after the reading.

    Researchers assessed whether children viewed anthropmorphic animal characters as human or not. Most children said these animals lacked human characteristics. Of the children who read the animal book, those who attributed human characteristics to anthropomorphic animals shared more after reading. Researchers say one of the reasons some children did not act generously may have been because they did not interpret the anthropomorphic animals as similar to themselves.

    Books with realistic characters lead to better learning

    Dr. Ganea says the results highlight that storybooks can have an immediate impact on children’s social behaviour.

    “Books that children can easily relate to increase their ability to apply the story’s lesson to their daily lives,” she said. “It is important for educators and parents to choose carefully when the goal is to teach real-world knowledge and social behaviours through storybooks.”

    Nicole Larsen, who worked with Dr. Ganea on the study as part of her master’s degree, agreed, noting, “Parents can play an important role in children’s learning by asking them to explain parts of the story and helping them see the similarity between the story and their own lives.”

    Children’s sharing tested

    In the study, children first had a chance to share some of their 10 stickers with another child. They were then read one of three books: a book about sharing with human characters; the same book with anthropomorphic animal characters; or a book about seeds. This book was used to check how sharing changed when the story did not involve sharing. After the reading, children had another chance to give away new stickers. The number of stickers shared provided a measure of children’s altruistic giving.

    Children were also asked to categorize different pictures of human, anthropomorphic, and realistic animals with either human traits or animal traits.

    To see if a story with animal characters is more appealing to young children, the researchers asked the children who read the seeds book to choose between the human and animal books.

    Overall, the researchers found:

    • Children shared more after reading the human book, and less after reading the animal book or the unrelated book about seeds.
    • The more a child attributed human characteristics to the anthropomorphic animals, the more they shared after reading the animal book.
    • Children did not prefer one type of book over the other.

  7. Life at home affects kids at school, some more than others

    August 31, 2017 by Ashley

    From The Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) press release:

    Some children are more susceptible to changes than others. They carry the relationship with their parents to school with them. Genetics can help explain why.

    “When the situation changes at home for these children, the relationship with their teacher changes too,” says researcher and PhD candidate Beate W. Hygen at NTNU Social Research and the Norwegian University of Science and Technology’s (NTNU) Department of Psychology.

    This means that when things are going well at home and in the parent-child relationship, the relationship between the child and the teacher is correspondingly good. However, the teacher-child relationship deteriorates when the child’s home life becomes more difficult.

    Genetic explanation

    “Some children seem to soak up environmental factors at home. This in turn affects the relationship with the teacher. For other children, the conditions at home don’t have much influence on their relationship with the teacher,” says Hygen.

    The explanation may be partly genetic. Hygen is the first author of a recent article that considers whether certain environmental factors affect children’s social development differently depending on what kind of genetic variants the child has.

    Hygen says the researchers are finding a link between children’s susceptibility to such factors and differences in a gene that regulates how individuals are affected by oxytocin. The differences found by the researchers were located in a variant of a receptor gene called OXTR, rs 53576. You can read more about this gene at https://www.snpedia.com/index.php/Rs53576

    Oxytocin is well known, even outside research circles. It is often called the “love hormone,” because it’s triggered when we’re together with someone we love, like a romantic love or our child. But oxytocin levels also increase when a relationship appears to be in danger, so the nickname isn’t totally accurate.

    Oxytocin release, the level of oxytocin in the brain and how oxytocin affects us play a significant role in our human relationships and how we interact and engage with others.

    Study looks at ambience

    Genetic differences in how we are affected by oxytocin can thus create differences in the way we relate to each other. Biology largely determines how we behave, but this study shows that this happens in conjunction with our surroundings.

    Previous surveys that have studied conditions at home versus in school have usually primarily looked at the parents’ situation. Social learning models, Hygen says, approach the issue from a starting point of “if there’s just yelling and negativity at home, some children can take these experiences into other relationships, such as with their teachers.”

    But the researchers in this survey start with the child itself and ask the question, “How vulnerable is the child to environmental factors?”

    “The most susceptible children will bring their home situation — both good and bad — into the school setting,” says Hygen.

    The Norwegian researchers examined 652 children in two age groups: 4-to-6 year olds and 6-to-8 year olds. This data is part of the long-term Tidlig Trygg i Trondheim study conducted by the Regional Centre for Child and Youth Mental Health and Child Welfare (RKBU) of Central Norway. The survey goes into detail about the home ambience. The study aims to identify risk and protection factors for psychosocial development and development of mental health problems in children.

    The researchers also asked the children’s teachers to assess the relationships they had with the children. This last component might be a source of error in the study, the researchers said.

    Different result in the United States

    The Norwegian researchers collaborated with American researchers, who conducted the same analysis in the US. The American researchers included 559 children from different locations in the United States. They did not find the same connection between home and school relationships.

    Hygen believes she has an idea why the Norwegian and American researchers have gotten divergent results.

    “In the United States, the stability of the relationship between teacher and child is often not the same in this age group,” she says.

    Norwegian children in the 6-to-8-year age group often have the same teacher for several years. In the United States, teachers change more often, and a change in the child’s relationship with their teacher over time may therefore be due to a change of teacher, not necessarily an improvement or worsening of the relationship with the same teacher.

    So, according to Hygen, researchers are less sure whether they are able to accurately measure relationship improvement or deterioration in the US, and the more frequent teacher changes may explain why the study doesn’t capture the effect of changes in the parent-child relationship.

    The researchers also assume that the quality of teachers varies a lot more in the United States than in Norway, since the funding of the school system differs from state to state. Greater social inequalities in the United States, which can influence relationships between teachers and children, may also affect the US results.

    The study has been published in the professional journal Developmental Psychology.


  8. Study suggests risktaking in teens is not because of brain development deficit

    by Ashley

    From the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania press release:

    A popular theory in recent neuroscience proposes that slow development of the prefrontal cortex — and its weak connectivity with brain reward regions — explains teenagers’ seemingly impulsive and risky behavior. But an extensive literature review to be published in the journal Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience challenges that interpretation.

    The researchers examined the evidence behind that argument and found that much of it misinterpreted adolescent exploratory behavior as impulsive and lacking in control. Instead, the review suggests that much of what looks like adolescent impulsivity is behavior that is often guided by the desire to learn about the world.

    “Not long ago, the explanation for teenage behavior was raging hormones,” said lead author Daniel Romer, Ph.D., research director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania. “Now, it’s that the prefrontal cortex isn’t fully developed. Neuroscientists were quick to interpret what appeared to be a characteristic of the developing brain as evidence of stereotypes about adolescent risk taking. But these behaviors are not symptoms of a brain deficit.”

    In their article, now posted online, the authors note that the brain development theory fails to take into account the implications of different kinds of risk taking. Teens have a heightened attraction to novel and exciting experiences, known as sensation seeking, which peaks during adolescence. But teens who exhibit that tendency alone are not necessarily more likely to suffer from health issues like substance use or gambling addiction. In fact, the authors noted that the rise in adolescent levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which may underlie the increased drive for sensation seeking, also supports the brain’s ability to exert greater control and to learn from experience.

    “What’s happening is that adolescents lack experience,” Romer said. “So they’re trying things out for the first time — like learning how to drive. They’re also trying drugs, deciding what to wear and who to hang out with. For some youth, this leads to problems. But when you’re trying things for the first time, you sometimes make mistakes. Researchers have interpreted this as a lack of control when for most youth, it’s just exploration.”

    Brain development and risk taking

    In their article, Romer and his co-authors say that the stereotype of the risky adolescent is based more on the rise of such behavior in adolescence than on its prevalence. “For the vast majority of adolescents,” the researchers write, “this period of development passes without substance dependence, sexually transmitted infection, pregnancy, homicide, depression, suicide, or death due to car crashes.”

    It’s a smaller subset of teens — those who exhibit impulsive behavior and have weak cognitive control — who are most at risk of unhealthy outcomes. Teens with impulse control problems can often be identified at ages four or five, and they are disproportionately likely to experience the hazards of adolescence and beyond, including higher rates of injuries and illnesses from car crashes, violence, and sexually transmitted infections, the authors say.

    “Further research is clearly needed to understand the brain development of youth who are at risk for adverse outcomes, as abnormalities of brain development are certainly linked to diverse neuropsychiatric conditions,” said co-author Theodore Satterthwaite, M.D., a faculty member in the Department of Psychiatry at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. “This research will help us to understand not only what makes adolescence a period of growth but also of risk.”

    An alternative model

    The authors propose an alternative model that emphasizes the role that risk taking and the experience gained by it play in adolescent development. This model explains much of the apparent increase in risk taking by adolescents as “an adaptive need to gain the experience required to assume adult roles and behaviors.” That experience eventually changes the way people think about risk, making it more “gist-like” or thematic and making them more risk averse.

    “Recent meta-analyses suggest that the way individuals think about risks and rewards changes as they mature, and current accounts of brain development must take these newer ideas into account to explain adolescent risk taking,” said co-author Valerie Reyna, Ph.D., director of the Human Neuroscience Institute at Cornell University.

    Romer added, “The reason teens are doing all of this exploring and novelty seeking is to build experience so that they can do a better job in making the difficult and risky decisions in later life — decisions like ‘Should I take this job?’ or ‘Should I marry this person?’ There’s no doubt that this period of development is a challenge for parents, but that’s doesn’t mean that the adolescent brain is somehow deficient or lacking in control.”


  9. Brain injury in kids might lead to alcohol abuse

    August 28, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Frontiers press release:

    Researchers at Ohio State University have surveyed previous studies to investigate the relationship between traumatic brain injuries and alcohol abuse. They found evidence that traumatic brain injuries in children and adolescents could be a risk-factor for alcohol abuse in later life.

    When we think of the link between alcohol and traumatic brain injuries, we probably think of a person’s increased risk of injury while drunk. Alcohol intoxication is indeed a significant risk factor for traumatic brain injuries, and one study has reported that alcohol use is involved in as many as 50% of emergency department admissions for traumatic brain injuries in the US.

    Intriguingly, an animal study conducted by Zachary Weil, a researcher at Ohio State University, made him suspect that the converse might also be true, particularly in young people. “We recently reported that mice that experience a traumatic brain injury as juveniles drink significantly more alcohol as adults,” says Weil. “When we started to look at the human literature it became clear that alcohol and traumatic brain injuries were very connected. There were some hints that brain injuries might actually make someone more susceptible to alcohol abuse.”

    Weil was inspired to look more closely at the past literature, and what he and his team found was recently published in Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience. The researchers found that it was difficult to tell if their hypothesis was true in adults. “So many adults that have brain injuries are already heavy drinkers and therefore it’s really hard to tell for sure if a brain injury has affected their drinking,” explains Weil.

    However, for people who suffer a traumatic brain injury in childhood or adolescence, there was a clearer link to alcohol abuse problems in later life. For example, children under 5 years of age who suffer a traumatic brain injury are over 3.6 times more likely to exhibit substance abuse as teenagers, compared with uninjured children.

    So, why would a traumatic brain injury potentially lead to alcohol abuse? The team found evidence in the literature that brain injury can negatively affect factors that are associated with reducing alcohol abuse. For example, forming stable romantic relationships, getting involved in extracurricular activities and maintaining full-time employment are all associated with a reduced risk of substance abuse, but all are less likely in brain injury survivors.

    Traumatic brain injuries can also make people more impulsive and less aware of the consequences of their actions, and there is also evidence that brain injury survivors may use alcohol to help deal with the negative consequences of their injury.

    Beyond its psychological effects, traumatic brain injury can cause significant inflammation in the brain. Alcohol also generates neuroinflammation, and evidence from animal studies suggests that this inflammation might drive further drinking.

    Finally, traumatic brain injuries can damage specific neurochemical systems in the brain that are vulnerable during childhood development, such as the dopaminergic system. A dysfunctional dopaminergic system is a risk factor for substance abuse, suggesting another potential link between childhood brain injury and alcohol abuse in adulthood.

    So, how can we address the problem? “This is an important issue because drinking after brain injury is associated with health problems and poorer outcomes. Specifically targeting substance abuse problems in the brain-injured population could do a lot of good,” says Weil.

    The researchers caution that the link between brain injuries and alcohol abuse has not yet been completely established and more work is needed. “This has not been completely confirmed in humans, but there is a lot of suggestive evidence,” explains Weil.


  10. Smartphone tracking shows fear affects where youth spend time

    August 26, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Ohio State University press release:

    Youth spend less time in their neighborhoods if area residents have a high fear of crime, according to a new study that used smartphones to track kids’ whereabouts.

    Researchers found that adolescents aged 11 to 17 spent over an hour less each day on average in their neighborhoods if residents there were very fearful, compared to kids from areas perceived as being safer. Higher fear of crime was linked to high-poverty neighborhoods.

    This is the first study to use smartphone data to track a large, diverse sample of young people to determine where they spend their time, said Christopher Browning, lead author of the study and professor of sociology at The Ohio State University.

    “It is clear that kids who live in high-poverty areas are spending less time in their neighborhoods and that is linked to a collective fear of crime,” Browning said.

    “This has never been tested before with GPS data that tracks movements on a minute-by-minute basis.”

    Browning presented the research Aug. 14 in Montreal at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association.

    This preliminary data is from the Adolescent Health and Development in Context study, which Browning leads. The study is examining the lives of 1,402 representative youths living in 184 neighborhoods in Franklin County, Ohio. This includes the city of Columbus and its suburbs.

    In this study, which was conducted April 2014 to July 2016, participating adolescents were given a smartphone that they kept with them for one week. The GPS function on the phone reported their location every 30 seconds.

    Overall, results showed youth spent an average of 52 percent of their waking time each day at home, 13 percent in their neighborhoods, and 35 percent outside of their neighborhoods. About 27 percent of the time when they were not at home while awake, they were in their neighborhoods.

    All caregivers of youth in the study were asked to rate how afraid they were to walk in their neighborhood.

    Results showed that caregivers’ ratings were only weakly connected to how much time their own children spent in the neighborhood. But the collective fear ratings of all the caregivers who lived in or regularly visited a neighborhood was strongly linked to the amount of time kids spent close to home.

    “Once enough people stop spending time in a neighborhood because they are afraid, others will withdraw, whether they are afraid or not,” Browning said.

    “If teens go to the local playground and there’s no one to play pickup basketball with, they will go outside the neighborhood to find their friends, or spend more time at home.”

    The study looked at whether the presence or absence of amenities like schools, community centers and stores could explain why youth in high-poverty neighborhoods spent less time there. But this factor explained little when compared to the collective fear of crime.

    “Many cities have social services like recreation centers that are targeted for disadvantaged neighborhoods,” Browning said.

    “But our results suggest these amenities may be underutilized because young people are withdrawing from the neighborhood. Whether they are afraid to go there or just following their friends elsewhere, young people spend less time in disadvantaged neighborhoods.”

    Upcoming studies using this same data set will examine whether kids in disadvantaged neighborhoods spend their extra time at home, or outside of their area.