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Understanding adolescence as a period of social–affective engagement and goal flexibility

Key Points

  • Adolescence is a time of marked improvements in cognitive abilities, such as abstract reasoning, problem solving and creative thought. More generally, it is also an important developmental period for maturational advancements in cognitive, affective and social capacities.

  • At the same time, adolescence is characterized by increased risk-taking, sensation-seeking and sensitivity to social evaluation, and these contribute to a wide range of serious health consequences in adolescence, including substance use, accidents, violence and suicide.

  • Several established models of adolescent brain development have suggested that these serious health problems emerging in adolescence can be explained by a relative immaturity in regions of the prefrontal cortex (which is thought to be important for the regulation of behaviour and emotions) in the face of rapid maturation of limbic brain regions (leading to intensification of emotions).

  • Using a meta-analysis of functional MRI data, we examined the evidence for these changes in brain function in relation to cognitive control, social–affective processing and social–cognitive reasoning over the course of adolescent development.

  • We conclude that the neuroimaging evidence for a slow maturation of cognitive control regions across adolescence is relatively inconsistent, with some studies reporting increases and others finding decreases in activation.

  • We found more consistent evidence for increased limbic responses to affective stimuli such as rewards, emotional faces and social feedback, peaking in mid-adolescence.

  • Brain regions involved in understanding others' intentions in social reasoning, such as the anterior medial prefrontal cortex and temporoparietal junction, show changes in relative contributions over the course of adolescent development.

  • On the basis of the meta-analysis and new insights from other research, we present a heuristic model that views adolescent brain development as a period of social and affective engagement and a time of learning and flexibility in adjusting goals and priorities. A key component of this model focuses on the impact of puberty on social–affective development.

Abstract

Research has demonstrated that extensive structural and functional brain development continues throughout adolescence. A popular notion emerging from this work states that a relative immaturity in frontal cortical neural systems could explain adolescents' high rates of risk-taking, substance use and other dangerous behaviours. However, developmental neuroimaging studies do not support a simple model of frontal cortical immaturity. Rather, growing evidence points to the importance of changes in social and affective processing, which begin around the onset of puberty, as crucial to understanding these adolescent vulnerabilities. These changes in social–affective processing also may confer some adaptive advantages, such as greater flexibility in adjusting one's intrinsic motivations and goal priorities amidst changing social contexts in adolescence.

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Figure 1: Meta-analysis of functional MRI studies in adolescents.
Figure 2: Interactive decision-making paradigms to examine social reasoning.
Figure 3: A model of adolescent brain development.

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Acknowledgements

E.A.C. is supported by grants from the European Research Counsil (ERC), the Netherlands Science Foundation (NWO) and the Young Academy of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences. R.E.D is supported by grants from the National Institute of Mental Health, National Institute of Drug Abuse, National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

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Developmental neuroimaging studies in the domains of cognitive control, emotion and social reasoning conducted between 2001 and 2011. (PDF 245 kb)

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Glossary

Cognitive control

A set of neurocognitive processes that are important for achieving short- and long-term goals, particularly when individuals are required to adjust their thoughts and actions adaptively in response to changing environmental demands in order to achieve their goal.

Relational reasoning

An essential component of fluid intelligence that requires a number of verbal or spatial dimensions to be considered simultaneously to reach a correct solution.

Social–cognitive development

Changes in cognitive skills and knowledge that facilitate understanding social situations, such as mentalizing and perspective-taking abilities.

Social–affective development

Changes in motivational and emotional aspects of social processing (such as empathy, increases in the salience of obtaining status, admiration and affiliation from peers) and the development of affective skills that support social competence.

Mentalizing

The ability to infer mental states of others, such as one's intentions, beliefs and desires — a key dimension of social–cognitive development in adolescence.

Self-oriented thoughts

Concern for outcomes that benefit one's own gains, such as in economic exchange when benefits for self and benefits for others are often conflicting.

Other-oriented thoughts

Concern for outcomes that benefit others, even when this is at the expense of gains for self, such as when evaluating what is fair for two parties.

Trust Game

Two-person interaction game that requires perspective-taking and relies on feelings of fairness and concern for others.

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Crone, E., Dahl, R. Understanding adolescence as a period of social–affective engagement and goal flexibility. Nat Rev Neurosci 13, 636–650 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1038/nrn3313

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