Nav: Home

Brain networks come 'online' during adolescence to prepare teenagers for adult life

January 29, 2020

New brain networks come 'online' during adolescence, allowing teenagers to develop more complex adult social skills, but potentially putting them at increased risk of mental illness, according to new research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

Adolescence is a time of major change in life, with increasing social and cognitive skills and independence, but also increased risk of mental illness. While it is clear that these changes in the mind must reflect developmental changes in the brain, it has been unclear how exactly the function of the human brain matures as people grow up from children to young adults.

A team based in the University of Cambridge and University College London has published a major new research study that helps us understand more clearly the development of the adolescent brain.

The study collected functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) data on brain activity from 298 healthy young people, aged 14-25 years, each scanned on one to three occasions about 6 to 12 months apart. In each scanning session, the participants lay quietly in the scanner so that the researchers could analyse the pattern of connections between different brain regions while the brain was in a resting state.

The team discovered that the functional connectivity of the human brain - in other words, how different regions of the brain 'talk' to each other - changes in two main ways during adolescence.

The brain regions that are important for vision, movement, and other basic faculties were strongly connected at the age of 14 and became even more strongly connected by the age of 25. This was called a 'conservative' pattern of change, as areas of the brain that were rich in connections at the start of adolescence become even richer during the transition to adulthood.

However, the brain regions that are important for more advanced social skills, such as being able to imagine how someone else is thinking or feeling (so-called theory of mind), showed a very different pattern of change. In these regions, connections were redistributed over the course of adolescence: connections that were initially weak became stronger, and connections that were initially strong became weaker. This was called a 'disruptive' pattern of change, as areas that were poor in their connections became richer, and areas that were rich became poorer.

By comparing the fMRI results to other data on the brain, the researchers found that the network of regions that showed the disruptive pattern of change during adolescence had high levels of metabolic activity typically associated with active re-modelling of connections between nerve cells.

Dr Petra Vértes, joint senior author of the paper and a Fellow of the mental health research charity MQ, said: "From the results of these brain scans, it appears that the acquisition of new, more adult skills during adolescence depends on the active, disruptive formation of new connections between brain regions, bringing new brain networks 'online' for the first time to deliver advanced social and other skills as people grow older."

Professor Ed Bullmore, joint senior author of the paper and head of the Department of Psychiatry at Cambridge, said: "We know that depression, anxiety and other mental health disorders often occur for the first time in adolescence - but we don't know why. These results show us that active re-modelling of brain networks is ongoing during the teenage years and deeper understanding of brain development could lead to deeper understanding of the causes of mental illness in young people."

Measuring functional connectivity in the brain presents particular challenges, as Dr František Váša, who led the study as a Gates Cambridge Trust PhD Scholar, and is now at King's College London, explained.

"Studying brain functional connectivity with fMRI is tricky as even the slightest head movement can corrupt the data - this is especially problematic when studying adolescent development as younger people find it harder to keep still during the scan," he said. "Here, we used three different approaches for removing signatures of head movement from the data, and obtained consistent results, which made us confident that our conclusions are not related to head movement, but to developmental changes in the adolescent brain."
-end-
The study was supported by the Wellcome Trust.

Reference

Váša, F et al. Conservative and disruptive modes of adolescent change in human brain functional connectivity. PNAS; 28 Jan 2020; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1906144117

University of Cambridge

Related Mental Illness Articles:

Mental illness, mental health care use among police officers
A survey study of Texas police officers examines how common mental illness and mental health care use are in a large urban department.
Hospitals miss mental illness diagnosis in more than a quarter of patients
Severe mental illness diagnoses are missed by clinicians in more than one quarter of cases when people are hospitalised for other conditions, finds a new study led by UCL researchers, published in PLOS Medicine.
Young migrants at risk of mental illness
Experience of trauma, abuse and poverty puts the mental health of many young refugees at risk.
Chronic illness in childhood linked to higher rates of mental illness
Children with long-term health conditions may be more likely to experience mental illness in early adolescence than healthy children, according to new research from Queen Mary University of London.
Did 'Joker' movie perpetuate prejudices against those with mental illness?
Researchers in this survey study examined whether watching the 2019 movie 'Joker,' in which the namesake character is violent and has mental illness, was associated with a change in the level of prejudice toward people with mental illness compared with others who watched another movie.
Skills training opens 'DOORS' to digital mental health for patients with serious mental illness
Digital technologies, especially smartphone apps, have great promise for increasing access to care for patients with serious mental illness such as schizophrenia.
Research calls for new measures to treat mental illness and opioid use
Opioid use among psychiatric hospital patients needs to be addressed through an integrated approach to managing mental illness, pain and substance use, a study by researchers at the University of Waterloo has found.
Researchers challenge myth of the relationship between mental illness and incarceration
Researchers examined the relationship between psychiatric diagnoses and future incarceration by merging data from psychiatric interviews that took place in the 1980s with 30 years of follow-up data.
New research raises important questions on how mental illness is currently diagnosed
This research raises questions as to whether current diagnoses accurately reflect the underlying neurobiology of mental illness.
Young teens of color more likely to avoid peers with mental illness
Students identifying as black or Latino are more likely to say they would socially distance themselves from peers with a mental illness, a key indicator of mental illness stigma, according to research published by the American Psychological Association.
More Mental Illness News and Mental Illness Current Events

Trending Science News

Current Coronavirus (COVID-19) News

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2020.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Listen Again: The Power Of Spaces
How do spaces shape the human experience? In what ways do our rooms, homes, and buildings give us meaning and purpose? This hour, TED speakers explore the power of the spaces we make and inhabit. Guests include architect Michael Murphy, musician David Byrne, artist Es Devlin, and architect Siamak Hariri.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#576 Science Communication in Creative Places
When you think of science communication, you might think of TED talks or museum talks or video talks, or... people giving lectures. It's a lot of people talking. But there's more to sci comm than that. This week host Bethany Brookshire talks to three people who have looked at science communication in places you might not expect it. We'll speak with Mauna Dasari, a graduate student at Notre Dame, about making mammals into a March Madness match. We'll talk with Sarah Garner, director of the Pathologists Assistant Program at Tulane University School of Medicine, who takes pathology instruction out of...
Now Playing: Radiolab

What If?
There's plenty of speculation about what Donald Trump might do in the wake of the election. Would he dispute the results if he loses? Would he simply refuse to leave office, or even try to use the military to maintain control? Last summer, Rosa Brooks got together a team of experts and political operatives from both sides of the aisle to ask a slightly different question. Rather than arguing about whether he'd do those things, they dug into what exactly would happen if he did. Part war game part choose your own adventure, Rosa's Transition Integrity Project doesn't give us any predictions, and it isn't a referendum on Trump. Instead, it's a deeply illuminating stress test on our laws, our institutions, and on the commitment to democracy written into the constitution. This episode was reported by Bethel Habte, with help from Tracie Hunte, and produced by Bethel Habte. Jeremy Bloom provided original music. Support Radiolab by becoming a member today at Radiolab.org/donate.     You can read The Transition Integrity Project's report here.