Tag Archives: Dopamine

Freaky Friday: Teenage Brains

by Richard

We’re going to close out science week with a look at teenage brains, thanks to the fine folks over at National Geographic magazine. No, sorry, dude, I have no idea why National Geographic is talking about brains instead of mountains and suchlike.

Or naked tribeswomen. What? That was a big part of the allure of the magazine lo these many years ago.

One guess I’ve got on why the dudes at the magazine are focusing on brains is that the fellows at the National Geographic tv channel are running a big special on brains starting this Sunday (Oct. 9 for the date impaired). Nah. Cross promotion probably has nothing to do with it.

Anyway, back to the article. While it’s beautiful to look at, coming as it does from photographic champ National Geographic, the ground it covers isn’t all that new. Basically, the magazine is looking at stuff we’ve talked about on this site before.

Teenage brains aren’t done, they’re more like works in progress. Thanks to advances in medical imaging techniques, we’re able to look inside those scarily moody teenage brains and watch the thinking bits at work. We can then compare them to adult brains and see how the teenage brain is in the process of winnowing out connections that don’t work, or don’t work well enough, and establishing connections between neurons that more simply help it do the work it needs to do.

This is an ongoing process, one that doesn’t finally complete until well into the teen dude and dudette’s early 20’s. Not only that, the article says, but teens also are more prone to taking risks that adult dudes would shy away from. Basically that’s all up to dopamine, one of the brain’s key neurotransmitters that has to do with pleasure and risk-seeking behavior.

When (brain) development proceeds normally, we get better at balancing impulse, desire, goals, self-interest, rules, ethics, and even altruism, generating behavior that is more complex and, sometimes at least, more sensible. But at times, and especially at first, the brain does this work clumsily. It’s hard to get all those new cogs to mesh.

Which is why teenagers often do things that, to them, seem perfectly sensible, but to outside observers (read, parents) seems like screamingly, hair-raisingly dangerous and stupid.

Even as brain function develops, it doesn’t do so on a smooth path. There’s tons of stops and starts, screeches into reverse, and all sorts of jaggedy movement. Just so you understand why your teenage dude was a pleasure to be with at breakfast, but by lunch it was all you could do not to strap him to his chair with duct tape and call the exorcist.

Teenage brains: Cthulhu ain’t got nothing on them.

Go. Read. May it bring you comfort that you’re not alone and that there really is a reason for it.

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Freaky Friday: Half A Brain

by Richard

It really is true, dudes. Your teenager really does have only half a brain. And guess who gets to be the other half? Not really a question there. It’s us. Wheeee!

I’ve talked about this before, but it bears repeating: young dudes and dudettes have brains. No, really. It’s true. The problem comes in that they’re not fully developed. For a long, long time.

This from a recent column by Lisa Duran, a retired high-school guidance counselor, and trauma and grief specialist.

Dr. Jeffery Georgi, a consulting associate in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Duke University School of Medicine, gave a six-hour presentation as training for trauma and loss therapists at the Trauma and Loss in Children Institute’s national assembly in July. Dr. Georgi’s specialty is adolescent brain research — specifically, how the brain handles substance abuse and trauma.

Dr. Georgi and other researchers have shown that the brain has two periods of major neuron growth: the second trimester in utero and between the ages of 6 and 10.

However, during adolescence, the brain — which weighs 3 pounds and contains over 150 billion (yes, with a “b”) neurons — actually streamlines itself and weeds out excess. It is developing cleaner and more direct pathways, which make it a more efficient and effective working organ.

Dopamine, the brain’s neurotransmitter that is involved in pleasure-seeking behavior, and that Georgi calls the novelty-seeking neurotransmitter, is going wild during this time of pruning and rewiring. Which might go a long way toward explaining things like thinking it’s a good idea to jump off a roof holding only an umbrella. And, no, that’s not a cliché. It’s experience.

This means that adolescents are driven to seek novelty and activity and, yes, pleasure. But they also are driven to learn.

Many teachers and parents will argue vehemently with that last statement, but it’s true. Teenagers are driven to learn. Maybe not what we want them to learn, but they are driven to seek activity, novelty, pleasure and learning.

That really is true. The problem comes in when we realize that, left alone, they’re going to be learning killer new moves in that video game, or how to sneak a bong into their room. That is, they’ll be learning stuff we don’t want them to learn.

That’s why we, as parents, need to be there to guide them into learning useful things (like how much fun it is taking out the garbage), or at least things that won’t actively harm them. And we need to do that sort of thing for a long while.

Brain research also clearly shows that this marvelous organ grows and develops from the back to the front, and the front part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, is where judgment, evaluation, decision-making, impulse control and a bunch of other great stuff that we consider “mature” is housed. This prefrontal cortex is not fully developed until the age of 25.

Yep, we got a long way to go. Doesn’t that sound like fun?

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Freaky Friday Extra!: Brain Fitness

by Richard

Hey, look, dude! It’s another list. This time we’re talking about building up your thinkin’ muscles.

10: Eat dark chocolate. For some reason, eating dark chocolate prompts your brain to release dopamine, a neurotransmitter that helps to improve overall brain function. And it tastes great.

9: Get enough sleep each night. We’re talking 8 hours for most folks. Resting your brain actually lets it work better.

8: Eat fish, especially fish like salmon. Most piscine dishes contain Omega 3 fatty acids which are not only brain-helpful but are good for your heart and overall cardiovascular health.

7: Have a ball. Throwing a ball up in the air and catching it can not only be a bit of fun, but it also improves hand-eye coordination.

6: Swap hobbies. Try something new or, if you already have a hobby you like, make it more difficult. By adjusting the difficulty level, you make your brain work even more to learn and excel at the new work.

5: Go to a museum or some other similar place, take the guided tour or read all the little info tags. Then, when you get home, try to transcribe all the details you remember about each piece. It helps improve your memory and your attention to detail.

4: Get musical. Learning a musical instrument, even something as relatively simple as a recorder or harmonica, will provide exercise to a number of different areas of your brain. Plus it’s fun.

3: Take a long walk down a rocky road. Strangely, walking on an uneven surface is thought to help you increase your ability to balance and can give the vestibular bits in your ear (which are responsible for balance) a nice bit of work.

2: Readin’, Writin’, ‘Rithmatic. Start to work on crossword puzzles, word games or Sudoku puzzles. We’re talking major brain sweat here.

1: Finally, use your non-dominant hand more. Try something difficult like brushing with your off hand. It’s not as easy as it sounds. Whenever I try to do it, I find that I’m moving my head more than my hand. Because of that, I usually try using my off hand to write. Just take it slow.

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