The Adolescent Brain and the Importance of Behaviors

BY Alissa Ellis, PhD

During adolescence, the brain is growing at an incredible rate, making it a prime time for behavioral interventions. As teens start new behaviors and habits, the brain catches on and begins to rewire pathways that support these new behaviors. It is possible to change the brain; but, in order to do so, you must commit to changing your actions.

There are many psychological processes that affect the motivation to do something. The complexity of these processes is too broad for this article. However, one of the first steps is to try to understand a couple important parts of the adolescent brain and how these parts are implicated in the behaviors (or lack thereof!) observed. The first consideration is that of the neurotransmitters involved in motivation, such as dopamine. Dopamine affects motivation through its effects on how an individual experiences pleasure and perceives the salience of a reward. It helps us to determine the cost/benefit of rewarding experiences. Dysregulations in dopamine, either too little or too much, can impair our motivation to work or act on what is important.

The next consideration are dysregulations in the specific brain areas considered to reflect aspects of the motivational system such as the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC). The ACC, in particular, is involved with cognitive control, reward valuation, and has strong connections to subcortical dopamine pathways. Activity in the ACC contributes to waning effort on difficult tasks and facilitates the switch to more preferred activities. The DLPFC has been shown to be related to the approach behaviors associated with the attainment of goals, but can also be linked to more difficulties inhibiting more automatic responses. That is, if a teen’s automatic response is to disengage or do a preferred activity, this area of the brain may be making it even more difficult for them to modify that response. This is supported by research suggesting that these same brain systems are involved in distress tolerance–the ability to persist on a task despite it being challenging or aversive. Disruptions in this area are associated with a teen more quickly “giving up,” when a reward is not present or salient. Combined, the dysregulations in both the dopamine system and in the functioning of critical areas of the prefrontal cortex, such as the ACC and DLPFC, can wreak havoc on a teen’s ability to recruit the necessary motivation to complete aversive tasks.

Despite these biological mechanisms contributing to poor task persistence or low motivation, the research suggests that biological changes can result from behavioral changes. So, get up and DO SOMETHING differently in order to generate changes. Only intentional actions can result in true change.