Teenagers act impulsively when facing danger

Brain activity may help explain why crime peaks during teen years

SAN DIEGO — Teenagers’ brains are wired to confront a threat instead of retreating, research presented November 10 at the annual Society for Neuroscience meeting suggests. The results may help explain why criminal activity peaks during adolescence.

Kristina Caudle of Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City and colleagues tested the impulse control of 83 people between ages 6 and 29. In the experiment, participants were asked to press a button when a photo of a happy face quickly flashed before them. They were told not to press the button when a face had a threatening expression.

When confronted with the threatening faces, people between the ages of 13 and 17 were more likely to impulsively push the button than children and adults were, the team found. Brain scans revealed that activity in an area called the orbital frontal cortex peaked in teens when they successfully avoided pushing the button, suggesting that this region curbs the impulse to react, Caudle said.

It’s not clear why children don’t have the same impulsive reaction to threatening faces. More studies could determine how the relevant brain systems grow and change, Caudle said.

Laura Sanders is the neuroscience writer. She holds a Ph.D. in molecular biology from the University of Southern California.

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