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This is your teen's brain, growing up

March 05, 2013|By Geoffrey Mohan
  • The study suggests that teenagers may be adding brain cells during puberty.
The study suggests that teenagers may be adding brain cells during puberty. (J.W. Burkey )

Wondering where your teen's mind is?

A study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests adolescents may be quite busy adding brain cells during puberty, and it might just have to do with sex.

"In school we were always taught the cells you're born with are pretty much all you get," said Margaret Mohr, a doctoral candidate in neuroscience at Michigan State University and one of the study's authors. "We're finding that's not true at all."

Adults can add neurons in the hippocampus, an area associated with learning and memory.

But enough about your hippocampus. Let's talk about your teen's amygdala, which processes memory and emotional reaction, and "kind of helps teens redirect their social communication," Mohr said.

Your amygdala might pick up on someone's sexual interest, perhaps. Or read that someone is spoiling for a chance to prove his dominance. All of that is useful around the time children are about to transition into the tricky social interactions of adulthood.

Researchers don't use real teens or 'tweens, even if parents would volunteer them. They used the next best thing: a pubescent male hamster. They injected the rodents with a commonly used substance that helps mark the birth date of cells, then put them in different environments — an "enriched" one with a wheel to run on, another without much to stimulate them.

Then researchers gave all the male hamsters, now a few weeks older, a shot at a sexually available female. Then they killed the male hamsters and took a close look at their brain cells. Sure enough, those cells born during puberty showed clear signs of activity.

The fact that cells known to have been born in puberty were active during these interactions suggest the cells had been incorporated into the circuits that drive male sexual behavior.

Having a wheel to run around on made a difference too. Those hamsters in such an "enriched" environment were more likely to retain these teen cells into adulthood, the study found.

The study and Mohr were silent on the specific parenting issues the study might raise.

"In humans, exercise and social interactions are important for your well-being," Mohr said. "We know exercise helps these new cells survive."

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