Brain to blame for kevin the teenager

    Arecent issue of news magazine Time has on its cover a map
    of a teenage brain and the statement: “Research is revolutionizing
    our view of the adolescent mind – and explaining its mystifying
    ways.”

    Parents who have teenagers whose only communication is a shrug and
    the word “whatever” will discover, if they read the accompanying
    report, that it isn’t just hormones which rule behaviour but also
    structural changes in the brain that occur in adolescence.

    Jay Giedd, chief of brain imaging at the National Institute of
    Mental Health in Maryland, has been tracking the development of the
    teenage brain for 13 years. Until recently, most scientists
    believed that the brain was largely a finished product by the time
    a child reached the age of 12.

    Now, with the help of magnetic resonance imaging, which involves no
    radiation, a different pattern has emerged. The most intensive
    period of growth for the brain is in the womb. Just prior to birth,
    extensive pruning removes brain cells that are under-used, and
    research is beginning to suggest that autism results if the process
    goes awry. What Giedd has discovered is that, in addition to this
    prenatal growth, there are two more waves of proliferation and
    pruning in late childhood and the teen years.

    In teenagers, the last part of the brain to grow is the section
    responsible for the executive function. This sets priorities, plans
    ahead, suppresses impulses and weighs up consequences. It can’t be
    long before defence lawyers are arguing that their clients’
    misdemeanours are the result of a poorly developed prefrontal
    cortex.

    Since scientists estimate that a brain probably doesn’t reach full
    maturity until the age of 25, it makes it seem even more absurd
    that in the UK we consider children fully culpable and place them
    in the dock. In the US, of course, it’s even worse. Over there,
    teenagers are executed.

    According to Giedd’s research, the still developing brain
    continually responds to redirection, given the right kind of
    investment of stimulus and care. “You can tell them to shape up or
    ship out,” he says, referring to adolescents. “But making mistakes
    is part of how the brain optimally grows.”

    In the mushrooming industry of parenting courses, perhaps it’s time
    to introduce a down-to-earth guide to neuroscience – not least
    because it might convince a doubting parent that it’s never too
    late. They really can help a teenager to think again.

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