Relative to other ages, adolescence is described as a period of increased impulsive and risk-taking behavior that can lead to fatal outcomes (suicide, substance abuse, HIV, accidents, etc.). This study was designed to examine neural correlates of risk-taking behavior in adolescents, relative to children and adults, in order to predict who may be at greatest risk. Activity in reward-related neural circuitry in anticipation of a large monetary reward was measured with functional magnetic resonance imaging, and anonymous self-report ratings of risky behavior, anticipation of risk and impulsivity were acquired in individuals between the ages of 7 and 29 years. There was a positive association between accumbens activity and the likelihood of engaging in risky behavior across development. This activity also varied as a function of individuals’ ratings of anticipated positive or negative consequences of such behavior. Impulsivity ratings were not associated with accumbens activity, but rather with age. These findings suggest that during adolescence, some individuals may be especially prone to engage in risky behaviors due to developmental changes in concert with variability in a given individual’s predisposition to engage in risky behavior, rather than to simple changes in impulsivity.
Analyses from this study indicated that (a) risk-taking and risky decision making decreased with age; (b) participants took more risks, focused more on the benefits than the costs of risky behavior, and made riskier decisions when in peer groups than alone; and (c) peer effects on risk-taking and risky decision making were stronger among adolescents and youths than adults. These findings support the idea that adolescents are more inclined toward risky behavior and risky decision making than are adults and that peer influence plays an important role in explaining risky behavior during adolescence.
A recent study examined impulse/cognitive control from sensation seeking behaviors, defined as the desire to seek out novel experiences and taking risks in order to achieve them. They tested individuals between the ages of 10 and 30 and showed that differences in sensation seeking with age followed a curvilinear pattern, with peaks in sensation seeking increasing between 10 and 15 years and declining or remaining stable thereafter. In contrast, age differences in impulsivity followed a linear pattern, with decreasing impulsivity with age.
Immature prefrontal activity might hinder appropriate estimation of future outcomes and appraisal of risky choices, and might thus be less influential on reward valuation than the ventral striatum.
Other Studies Related to Neural Function in Children and Adolescent Risk Behavior:
- Incentive-elicited brain activation in adolescents: similarities and differences from young adults;
- Amygdala and nucleus accumbens in responses to receipt and omission of gains in adults and adolescents;
- The role of ventral frontostriatal circuitry in reward-based learning in humans;
- Event-related functional magnetic resonance imaging of reward-related brain circuitry in children and adolescents;
- Adolescent risky decision-making: Neurocognitive development of reward and control regions