Brain changes at puberty 'help to develop intellectual machinery'

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The Independent Online

The brain undergoes dramatic changes during adolescence which continue into a person's twenties, according to studies.

"It's not true that the brain stops developing at the age of five, which was a very established myth until about six years ago," said Sarah Blakemore, a neuroscientist at University College London. "The brain continues to undergo a massive wave of development at the onset of puberty and continues right through adolescence and into the early twenties and even thirties in some brain areas."

Two studies of teenagers have shown that their brains undergo significant reorganisation which helps them to develop the intellectual machinery for understanding their own emotions and the feelings of others.

"One of the brain regions that undergoes this dramatic development during adolescence is the pre-frontal cortex, the part of the front of the brain that makes us human," said Dr Blakemore. "It's involved in all sorts of high-level cognitive functions like making decisions and also understanding other people and social awareness."

Brain scans of teenagers and adults show that as, people get older, they begin to use the pre-frontal cortex at the expense of the superior temporal sulcus, at the back of the brain. "It's as if the pattern of brain activity shifts from the back of the brain to the front of the brain during adolescence to do this kind of empathy task," said Dr Blakemore.

A second study found that the brains of teenagers changed as they grow older in a way that makes them more efficient at seeing things from other people's perspectives. "The studies suggest that it's not just hormones that are causing teenagers to be their typical selves, it could also be the fact that their brains are developing as well," said Dr Blakemore. "Nobody knows whether it's genetically pre-programmed or whether it is influenced by the environment. Possibly there's a bit of both."