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National Research Council (US) and Institute of Medicine (US) Forum on Adolescence; Kipke MD, editor. Adolescent Development and the Biology of Puberty: Summary of a Workshop on New Research. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 1999.

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Adolescent Development and the Biology of Puberty: Summary of a Workshop on New Research.

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Adolescent Development and the Biology of Puberty

Adolescence is one of the most fascinating and complex transitions in the life span. Its breathtaking pace of growth and change is second only to that of infancy. Biological processes drive many aspects of this growth and development, with the onset of puberty marking the passage from childhood to adolescence. Puberty is a transitional period between childhood and adulthood, during which a growth spurt occurs, secondary sexual characteristics appear, fertility is achieved, and profound psychological changes take place.

Although the sequence of pubertal changes is relatively predictable, their timing is extremely variable. The normal range of onset is ages 8 to 14 in females and ages 9 to 15 in males, with girls generally experiencing physiological growth characteristic of the onset of puberty two years before boys. Pubertal maturation is controlled largely by complex interactions among the brain, the pituitary gland, and the gonads, which in turn interact with environment (i.e., the social, cultural, and ambient environment). A relatively new area of research related to puberty is that of brain development. Evidence now suggests that brain growth continues into adolescence, including the proliferation of the support cells, which nourish the neurons, and myelination, which permits faster neural processing. These changes in the brain are likely to stimulate cognitive growth and development, including the capacity for abstract reasoning.

Although the biology of physical growth and maturation during puberty is generally understood, available data on the biochemical and physiological mediators of human behavior are extremely primitive, and their clinical applicability remains obscure. Despite the limitations of available data, a substantial body of evidence suggests that variations in the age of onset of puberty may have developmental and behavioral consequences during adolescence. Mounting evidence also suggests that gonadal hormones, gonadotropins, and adrenal hormones influence and are affected by social interactions among groups of experimental animals, and they may also play an important role in regulating human social behavior. Interesting and potentially informative parallels exist between the maturational process in human beings and in other animals, especially those having well-documented social structures.

Research conducted with both humans and nonhuman primates suggests that adolescence is a time for carrying out crucial developmental tasks: becoming physically and sexually mature; acquiring skills needed to carry out adult roles; gaining increased autonomy from parents; and realigning social ties with members of both the same and the opposite gender. Studies of such commonalities underscore the critical importance of this part of the life course in establishing social skills. For many social species, such skills are further developed through peer-oriented interactions that are distinct from both earlier child-adult patterns and later adult pairings.

Adolescence is a time of tremendous growth and potential, but it is also a time of considerable risk. Most people would argue that being an adolescent today is a different experience from what it was even a few decades ago. Both the perceptions of this change and the change itself attest to the powerful influence of social contexts on adolescent development. Many of the 34 million adolescents in the United States are confronting pressures to use alcohol, cigarettes, or other drugs and to initiate sexual relationships at earlier ages, putting themselves at high risk for intentional and unintentional injuries, unintended pregnancies, and infection from sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), including the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Many experience a wide range of painful and debilitating mental health problems.

One of the important insights to emerge from scientific inquiry into adolescence in the past decade is the profound influence of settings on adolescents' behavior and development. Until recently, research conducted to understand adolescent behavior, particularly risk-related behaviors, focused on the individual characteristics of teenagers and their families. In 1993, the National Research Council conducted a study that took a critical look at how families, communities, and other institutions are serving the needs of youth in the United States. This study concluded that adolescents depend not only on their families, but also on the neighborhoods in which they live, the schools that they attend, the health care system, and the workplace from which they learn a wide range of important skills. If sufficiently enriched, all of these settings and social institutions in concert can help teenagers successfully make the transition from childhood to adulthood.

Family income is perhaps the single most important factor in determining the settings in which adolescents spend their lives. Housing, neighborhoods, schools, and the social opportunities that are linked to them are largely controlled by income; a family's income and employment status decide its access to health care services and strongly influence the quality of those services (National Research Council, 1993). Opportunities for advanced education and training and entry into the workforce are also closely linked to family income. Moreover, income is a powerful influence in shaping what is arguably the most important setting, the family. At this point in time, the evidence is clear—persistent poverty exacts a significant price on adolescents' health, development, educational attainment, and socioeconomic potential, even though the causal relationships are not well understood in all cases.

Not only is current research attempting to more fully characterize the physiological mechanisms responsible for initiating and regulating neuroendocrine maturation and somatic growth, but it is also attempting to characterize these environmental and contextual factors that may interact with biological ones to enhance or impede maturation. This research is attempting to address questions that could help to inform the development of policies and the delivery of services for youth. Such questions include: What is the pubertal experience like for teenagers today, and how does it differ from that in the past, both in the United States and in other cultures? How do pubertal experiences, in some circumstances and for some subgroups, trigger maladaptive responses? What role do pubertal processes play in cognitive change? How does puberty, in conjunction with other events that occur during early adolescence, influence the emergence of developmental psychopathology?

Copyright 1999 by the National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Bookshelf ID: NBK224692


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