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Dev Cogn Neurosci. 2015 Feb;11:56-64. doi: 10.1016/j.dcn.2014.07.008. Epub 2014 Aug 12.

Who are those "risk-taking adolescents"? Individual differences in developmental neuroimaging research.

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Department of Psychiatry, Virginia Commonwealth University, 203 East Cary Street, Suite 202, Richmond, VA 23219, USA. Electronic address:
Department of Psychiatry, University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, USA.


Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) has illuminated the development of human brain function. Some of this work in typically-developing youth has ostensibly captured neural underpinnings of adolescent behavior which is characterized by risk-seeking propensity, according to psychometric questionnaires and a wealth of anecdote. Notably, cross-sectional comparisons have revealed age-dependent differences between adolescents and other age groups in regional brain responsiveness to prospective or experienced rewards (usually greater in adolescents) or penalties (usually diminished in adolescents). These differences have been interpreted as reflecting an imbalance between motivational drive and behavioral control mechanisms, especially in mid-adolescence, thus promoting greater risk-taking. While intriguing, we caution here that researchers should be more circumspect in attributing clinically significant adolescent risky behavior to age-group differences in task-elicited fMRI responses from neurotypical subjects. This is because actual mortality and morbidity from behavioral causes (e.g. substance abuse, violence) by mid-adolescence is heavily concentrated in individuals who are not neurotypical, who rather have shown a lifelong history of behavioral disinhibition that frequently meets criteria for a disruptive behavior disorder, such as conduct disorder, oppositional-defiant disorder, or attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. These young people are at extreme risk of poor psychosocial outcomes, and should be a focus of future neurodevelopmental research.


Adolescence; Punishment; Reward; Risk-taking; Self-control; fmri

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