The social brain in adolescence

Key Points

  • The 'social brain' is the network of brain regions that are involved in understanding other people, and includes the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) and the posterior superior temporal sulcus (pSTS). These regions are key to the process of mentalizing — that is, the attribution of mental states to oneself and to other people.

  • Recent functional neuroimaging research has shown that activity in parts of the social brain during social cognitive tasks changes during adolescence.

  • In particular, there is some indication that activity in the PFC during face-processing tasks increases from childhood to adolescence and then decreases from adolescence to adulthood. Consistent with this, there is evidence that activity in the mPFC during mentalizing tasks decreases between adolescence and adulthood.

  • The prefrontal cortex is one of the brain regions that undergo structural development, including synaptic reorganization, during adolescence. Synaptic density, reflected in grey-matter volume in MRI scans, decreases during adolescence.

  • It is argued that the synaptic reorganization in the PFC might underlie the functional changes that are seen in the social brain during adolescence, as well as the social cognitive changes that are characteristic of this period of life.

Abstract

The term 'social brain' refers to the network of brain regions that are involved in understanding others. Behaviour that is related to social cognition changes dramatically during human adolescence. This is paralleled by functional changes that occur in the social brain during this time, in particular in the medial prefrontal cortex and the superior temporal sulcus, which show altered activity during the performance of social cognitive tasks, such as face recognition and mental-state attribution. Research also indicates that, in humans, these parts of the social brain undergo structural development, including synaptic reorganization, during adolescence. Bringing together two relatively new and rapidly expanding areas of neuroscience — social neuroscience and the study of brain development during adolescence — will increase our understanding of how the social brain develops during adolescence.

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Figure 1: Regions of the social brain.
Figure 2: Activation of the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) during mentalizing tasks decreases during adolescence.
Figure 3: Developmental changes in brain activation elicited by looking at fearful faces.
Figure 4: Development of synaptic density and grey-matter volume in sensory and frontal regions.

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Acknowledgements

The author is funded by a Royal Society University Research Fellowship. I am grateful to C. Frith, U. Frith, C. Sebastian, S. Burnett and I. Dumontheil for reading previous versions of the manuscript.

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Glossary

Conspecifics

Individuals of the same species.

Agency

The capacity of an individual to make conscious choices and impose those choices on the world.

Synaptogenesis

The generation of new synapses in the brain.

Synaptic density

The number of synapses per unit brain tissue.

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Blakemore, S. The social brain in adolescence. Nat Rev Neurosci 9, 267–277 (2008). https://doi.org/10.1038/nrn2353

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