Study Reveals Differences in Brain Connections of Risk-Taking Teens

Sam DeWitt

Sam DeWitt

New research from the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences’ Center for BrainHealth at UT Dallas found that connections between certain brain regions are amplified in risk-taking teens.

“Our brains have an emotional-regulation network that exists to govern emotions and influence decision-making,” said Sam DeWitt, the study’s lead author and UT Dallas doctoral student. “Anti-social or risk-seeking behavior may be associated with an imbalance in this network.”

The study, published June 30 in Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, looked at 36 adolescents ages 12-17; 18 risk-taking teens were compared to a group of 18 non-risk-taking teens who were the same ages and sex.

Participants were screened for risk-taking behaviors, such as drug and alcohol use, sexual promiscuity and physical violence, and underwent functional MRI (fMRI) scans to examine communication between brain regions associated with the emotional-regulation network. Researchers also found that the risk-taking group showed significantly lower income compared to the non-risk-taking group.

“Most fMRI scans used to be done in conjunction with a particular visual task. In the past several years, however, it has been shown that performing an fMRI scan of the brain during a ‘mind wandering’ state is just as valuable,” said Dr. Sina Aslan, adjunct assistant professor at the Center for BrainHealth and president of Advance MRI. “In this case, brain regions associated with emotion and reward centers show increased connection even when they are not explicitly engaged.”

Dr. Francesca Filbey

Dr. Francesca Filbey

The study — conducted by Dr. Francesca Filbey, director of cognitive neuroscience research of addictive behaviors at the Center for BrainHealth, and her colleagues — shows that risk-taking teens exhibit hyper-connectivity between the amygdala, a center responsible for emotional reactivity, and specific areas of the prefrontal cortex associated with emotion regulation and critical thinking skills.

The researchers also found increased activity between areas of the prefrontal cortex and the nucleus accumbens, a center for reward sensitivity that has been associated with addiction.

“Our findings are crucial in that they help identify potential brain biomarkers that, when taken into context with behavioral differences, may help identify which adolescents are at risk for dangerous and pathological behaviors in the future,” DeWitt said.

He also points out that even though the risk-taking group did partake in risky behavior, none met clinical criteria for behavioral or substance use disorders. By identifying these factors early, the research team hopes to have a better chance of providing effective cognitive strategies to help risk-seeking adolescents regulate their emotions and avoid risk-taking behavior and substance abuse.

Media Contact: The Office of Media Relations, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, [email protected].

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