November 01, 2004
Brain Development Leads To More Rational Restraint On Behavior

Kids are out of control because their medial temporal lobes have little say in what they do.

SAN DIEGO, Oct. 27 – A person's ability to have voluntary control over behavior improves with age because with development, additional brain processes are used, according to scientists at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

The research, presented today at the Annual Meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, helps to resolve questions about how working memory – a function that allows people to perform tasks as diverse as making toast to solving complex math problems – develops and changes from childhood to adulthood.

"This study gives us a good picture of how our ability to have voluntary control over our behavior using working memory changes and improves with maturity," said Beatriz Luna, Ph.D., associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

"Anyone with kids or teenagers knows that they can make irrational decisions when they are under stress," said Dr. Luna. "That is not just because they are trying to be difficult – kids simply are not yet able to access the brain regions that allow adults to react in a more controlled way. What this may mean is that adolescents may be able to act like adults under normal conditions, but under stress they may go back to a more instinctual, less thought-out response."

Note that stress increases memory recall but decreases problem-solving ability. Do middle-aged adults retain more problem-solving ability under stressful conditions than do young adults, adolescents, and children? Also, do criminals lose more problem-solving ability under stress than do non-criminal members of populations? Anyone know of there is any research literature on this question? It would be interesting to see whether the degree of decay of problem-solving ability under stressful conditions in adolescence correlates with future criminal behavior.

Working memory is where the brain stores information used to make immediate calculations, similar to the random access memory (RAM) in a computer. Like RAM, the information stored in working memory is dumped when it is no longer needed. Working memory allows the brain to take in information and create planned responses using abstract thought. Without it, human behavior would consist mostly of reflexive actions, and humans would not have been able to develop higher mental abilities.

In a group of 20 healthy 8- to 30-year-olds, Dr. Luna and her colleagues used a test called an oculomotor delayed response task to track memory-guided saccades (eye movements) while imaging their brains using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Study participants briefly were shown a pinpoint of light and asked to remember where the light appeared. Ten seconds later, they were asked to look at the location where the light had been using just their memory. The 10-second time lapse was chosen because it would force the subjects to use their working memory – and not short- or long-term memory.

Results of the imaging study showed that pre-adolescent children relied most heavily on the prefrontal and parietal regions of the brain during the task; adolescents used those regions plus the anterior cingulate; and in adults, a third area of the brain, the medial temporal lobe, was brought in to support the functions of the other areas.

Adults did best with the saccade test probably because the medial temporal lobe helps refine encoding of information into working memory. In practical situations, introduction of the medial temporal lobe into the working memory process likely provides the kick needed to keep information around long enough and clearly enough for the brain to mull it over and make a rational, informed decision rather than an impulsive, reflexive action.

"Understanding working memory will inform us about how thinking occurs and how it is linked to other brain processes – and because working memory also is one of the major brain systems impaired in many psychiatric illnesses, understanding these links could inform the development of new treatments," said Dr. Luna.

This brings up an obvious question for those of us who expect medical treatments will be devised to change the speed and direction of brain development: Will it become possible to accelerate the growth of neurons and the development of connections in the brain to allow the medial temporal lobe to gain more influence on behavior at younger ages of child development? Will parents take their juvenile delinquents to get hormonal or gene therapies to enhance the connections the medial temporal lobe and the rest of the brain? Or will parole boards make the development such connections (verified by fMRI scans) as requirements for granting of parole to convicts?

This report is reason to be optimistic about one potential problem that may result from future rejuvenation therapies. A population made more youthful by rejuvenation may become more violent and criminal. While that is certainly going to happen to some extent this report suggests that when middle aged and old aged people can some day regain the use of fully rejuvenated and youthful bodies their rates of crime probably will not increase back up to the average level of criminal activity that their population cohorts engaged in when they were young. If the brain develops lasting neural wiring patterns into adulthood that give the rational brain a stronger ability to restrain impulses then my guess is that rejuvenation therapies will not reduce the strength of those neural connections.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2004 November 01 07:51 PM  Brain Development

p said at November 2, 2004 5:44 AM:

Wow!!! What a stretch!!! The magnitude of the differences found in no way support the categorical nature of claims separating adults and children. These results are extremely interesting but we must be careful not to infer beyond what is reasonable. The claims about control are just not warranted out of the context of the study given the magnitude of the effects found (not to mention the task tested/manipulated). There are two issues that the authors must contend with before they can make such leaps - (1) internal validity and (2) external validity.

poll troll said at November 2, 2004 9:59 AM:

......put those kids on a low-carb diet with plenty of red meat.....the low quality food that people eat and their kids eat is wonder they act likes nuts, they eat dreadful are what you eat.....


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