Berkeley Scientists Explore Teenage Mind

Neuroscientists at UC Berkeley are conducting research on adolescent brains that links delayed development of the prefrontal cortex to teens’ capacity for complex decisionmaking.

The effects of underdeveloped decision processing centers can manifest in small and large ways, from the inconsequential decisions adolescents make on a daily basis to decisions to take risks with far-reaching consequences.

According to recent psychiatric studies, more 17-year-olds commit crimes than any other age group.

UC Berkeley assistant professor of psychology Silvia Bunge questions the merit of current legal attitudes toward teenage criminals.

“Do you put someone away for life who lost his temper at 13, or do you acknowledge that his prefrontal cortex has matured since then?” Bunge asked. “The law is slow to change, but it will, over time, incorporate scientific evidence.”

Bunge is part of the Law and Neuroscience Project Foundation, a group of neurobiologists and lawyers working to incorporate new insights about the adolescent brain into the legal system. Headquartered in Santa Barbara, the foundation’s honorary chair is former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.

Crucial to learning complex rules and applying knowledge to changing situations, the prefrontal cortex is also responsible for controlling impulses.

UC Berkeley psychology professor Robert Knight explained that while the prefrontal cortex kicks in to remind adults of the consequences of their actions and restrain impulses, children lack this capacity until the brain is fully developed.

“This is a very fundamental issue with huge social implications,” Knight said.

Bunge also believes that children’s immature brains could explain studies that show that they tend to take bigger risks than adults and are less able to withstand the temptations of a reward.

“If your friend says, ‘Hey, let’s try this drug, it will be fun,’ you might not be able to use the information you know about the possible negative consequences to resist,” Bunge said.