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The Perplexing Teenage Brain – Prof. Sarah-Jayne Blakemore on Adolescent Behavior

November 10, 2012

Parents of teenagers know that adolescent years (between childhood and adulthood) can be tumultuous and stressful. Teenagers infuriate and amaze us – at times simultaneously. When parents congregate they share similar war stories – almost as though teenagers meet in secret, learning how to drive their parents crazy. Is teenage behavior a conspiracy of rebellion or something deeper?

Professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, who earned her undergraduate degree in Experimental Psychology at the University of Oxford and who is currently a Royal Society University Research Fellow and Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London (UCL), researches the adolescent brain. Prof. Blakemore’s research shows that perplexing teenage behavior is increasingly explainable.

“Puberty represents a period of profound transition in terms of drives, emotions, motivations, psychology and social life … there is increasing evidence that adolescent changes in sensation-seeking may include some puberty-specific changes, and may provide new insights into adolescent risk taking. Sensation-seeking is one of the developmental contributors to risk behaviors and is more likely to emerge during adolescence than any other time period.” (Source: The Role of Puberty in the Developing Adolescent Brain, Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, Stephanie Burnett, and Ronald E. Dahl, 2009)

Prof. Blakemore’s work has gained a wider audience since her TEDGlobal 2012 presentation on “The mysterious workings of the adolescent brain”. As part of our Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) Series, had the privilege of speaking with Prof. Blakemore on what inspired her pursuit of science, and her research into adolescent behavior. “What sparked your interest in becoming a scientist?”

Professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore: “My dad’s a scientist so that probably had an early influence; science and having a career as a scientist was normal to me in my life. I think that does make a difference: seeing someone really enjoying their career gives that career a certain normality and appeal.

“When I was in high school in Oxford, a famous developmental psychologist gave a talk on dyslexia, and I talked to him afterward because I found what he had to say really interesting. He happened to have on him a book that he said I might be interested in. The book was by Uta Frith, who is a developmental cognitive neuroscientist, on autism. That year in high school we had to do a week of work experience in a field we were interested in, so I wrote to Uta Frith and asked if I could work with her in her London lab, and she said yes. I spent a week in Uta’s lab observing researchers testing kids with autism, and that’s how I became really interested in pursuing a degree in psychology.

“I ultimately completed a psychology degree at the University of Oxford. Psychology at Oxford focuses mostly on the brain and I became really interested in how the brain controls human behavior, and in particular what happens when something goes wrong, for example in mental illnesses like schizophrenia. It was at that point that I decided I wanted to pursue a PhD in neuroscience.” “What inspired your interest in adolescent behavior?”

Blakemore: “My PhD was focused on schizophrenia. Schizophrenia has its onset right at the end of adolescence. The average age of onset is in the early 20’s – if you are going to develop schizophrenia, it’s most likely to develop between the ages of 18-27, at the end of or just after adolescence. This is really interesting because schizophrenia is a developmental disorder: it develops – but relatively late – unlike autism, ADHD and dyslexia all of which develop quite early, and have signs very early in life. Schizophrenia is something that waits; and something, probably in the environment, triggers schizophrenia in people who have a genetic predisposition to the disorder.

“About ten years ago, when I was doing my post-doc in France, I started to wonder what is it that goes wrong in the brains of teenagers who then go on to develop schizophrenia right after their teenage years. And ten years ago, to my complete surprise, I discovered there was virtually nothing known about what goes on in a teenager’s brain. It was a very, very new field back then. That’s when I decided, with the encouragement of Uta Frith, the scientist whom I did work experience with while in high school and who became one of my closest mentors, to pursue this research. Uta Frith is a Fellow of the British Academy, a Fellow of the Royal Society (the British National Academy of Science) and a Dame of the British Empire (meaning she’s been knighted!); she’s an amazing woman scientist. Uta really pioneered developmental cognitive neuroscience, especially with respect to developmental disorders like autism and dyslexia.

“Ten years ago I was talking to her about adolescent brain development and what could be happening in people who develop schizophrenia. It was Uta who suggested that I could start to work in this area, that adolescent behavior is something that is crying out to be looked at in terms of empirical research. So I decided to change the trajectory of my own research, and applied for a Royal Society Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowship to work on the problem. The Royal Society provides a limited number of paid Fellowships to young scientists and places limits on how much teaching and university administration you do, and therefore allows you to focus completely on your research. The Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowships are specifically aimed at junior scientists who might need flexible working arrangements, for example, if they have small children. This was enormously beneficial to me at that early stage of my career, when I had my two sons.” “How did you come up with experiments related to your research in the study of adolescent behavior?”

Blakemore: “Often we base our experimental hypotheses on paradigms that are already published by other labs, or by our own lab, and have an established set of findings from adults. I think that is quite important because in order to make any kind of hypotheses on what might happen in the adolescent brain you need to have a strong research basis from the adult literature. For example, we often take paradigms or tasks that have been used with adults in the context of social cognition. By social cognition I mean thinking about other people’s mental states or emotions, making judgements on other people’s perspectives, that kind of thing. We know from studies on this ability (known as theory of mind) a lot about the network of brain regions that is activated in adults, and it is with that information that we can make concrete hypotheses about how that neural network might develop in adolescents.

“In addition, sometimes we design our own paradigms completely from scratch and we do high-risk research where we have no idea, really, what’s going to happen, or whether it’s going to work. Sometimes research absolutely doesn’t work and we have to give up, because we get so many null-results. That can be quite demoralizing, but it’s a fact of science that not all hypotheses are supported.

“We often collaborate with people who’ve designed paradigms for adults so that we have confidence in what we are doing. A lot of our work is done via collaboration with other researchers in quite different fields, such as psychiatry, pediatrics, endocrinology and genetics.” “How have parents and teachers reacted to your research?”

Blakemore: “Actually, tomorrow and the next day I’m going to give talks in schools to teachers and adolescents. Teachers and parents generally find the research really interesting and useful, to learn how teenagers brains are changing, and that teenage brains are really going through quite significant development, and do so for a long time. I guess it helps parents and teachers understand teenage behavior a bit more.

“I think sometimes the problem with people’s attitudes towards adolescence is that teenagers can look quite adult. A lot of teenagers are taller than me and dress in an adult way, and this creates a tension because you are dealing with someone who looks like an adult, but actually doesn’t have an adult brain. That can make people very frustrated with adolescents because adults expect teenagers to be able to make decisions and plan, and do everything in the same way that an adult does. Maybe we should be a bit more tolerant of adolescents and take into account the fact that teenage brains are going through an inevitable period of development.

“One frustration in this field is that sometimes people mistake what we’re saying for neuro-determinism. Their argument is that the brain is not relevant, that it is the social environment and adolescents differ between cultures so the brain doesn’t really explain adolescent behavior very much. But my argument is that what the research shows is completely the opposite, that the brain is malleable, and is very much influenced by the social environment. The research is not saying that teenagers go along a trajectory and they will become what their genes determine, because that is never the case. Genes don’t work in isolation, they always work in interaction with the environment.

“The point of this research is that the natural plasticity of brain development continues for the first two decades of life, possibly the first three and a half decades. That’s a period of life when the environment probably has a particularly profound effect on brain development and so in fact explains how our social environment and culture play such an important role.” “What advice to you have for middle and high school students that have an inkling they are interested in science?”

Blakemore: “My work experience with Uta Frith shaped my entire career. My experiences with her inspired me and made me realize that psychology was what I was really interested in, and it gave me direct experience of what it is like to be a psychologist working in a lab. I had confidence when I applied to study psychology: I knew what I was applying for.

“It doesn’t matter how young students are, they should get in touch with scientists in their local area, if they have a university near them or a hospital, and ask for work experience. It might take them 40 emails to get work experience, because a lot of scientists are either too busy or they do sensitive research which isn’t really amenable to having students participate, but that doesn’t matter – just move on and try someone else.

“We now live in a time of the Internet so it is easier to find people. When I was a high school student it wasn’t so easy, I had this chance piece of luck when I was given Uta Frith’s book. I’d never really heard of developmental psychology or autism before reading this book, even though I have a dad who is a scientist. It is a completely different world we live in now – the Internet is a fantastic opportunity, young students can look up local scientists. It might be that a student has no idea what kind of science they are interested in, but at least getting a little bit of work experience, even if it is just a day, will give students an idea of what scientists do every day.

“I don’t think many people, especially kids in school, have much of a clue what scientists do in their everyday lives, in the lab. For example, I do science every day but I haven’t worn a lab coat for about 15 years! Not all science fulfills the stereotype.”

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