Peering Into the Teen Brain: What Does Risky Behavior Look Like?

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Image
Images of the brains with areas of activity colored.

The brain areas that look like fire show where differences exist in electrical activity in the “cautious” and “risky” groups of typically-developing teens. The first row shows brain activity while the teens are making decisions that lead to cautious behaviors. These teens have more brain activation than teens with substance use disorders have. While making decisions to do risky behaviors, typically developing teens again show more brain activation, in different areas (second row).

Using drugs is risky. Many teens who use drugs add to the risk by doing other dangerous things, like stealing to get money for drugs, injecting drugs, driving drunk or drugged, fighting, using weapons, and more. Of course, the more risks somebody takes, the greater the chance they’ll eventually face consequences like jail time, serious injury, or even death.

But some teens keep right on taking those risks, even though they get plenty of information about the dangers of drug use from their family, at school, and from other sources like this blog. Why? Is it peer pressure? Are some teens just more attracted to risk? Or is it something else?

Researchers are getting closer to understanding one important factor behind the risky choices of teens who use drugs. It has to do with the brain.

Taking pics of brain strain

In a recent study, researchers took pictures of the brains of two groups of teens who played a game in which they made a series of choices between engaging in either a cautious behavior or a risky one. The first group of teens had substance use problems, or other problems controlling their behavior; the other group did not.  

Each teen started the game with $5.00. Choosing a cautious behavior would earn the teen one cent; each risky behavior would either win them five cents or lose 10 cents. So being cautious earned a definite but small reward, which added up as the game went on. Being risky would make the teens win big or lose bigger. The chances of winning declined over the course of the game, so if the teens kept making the risky choice, eventually they would lose their money.

Brain scans showed how much electrical activity happened in each teen’s brain while they were making their decisions, and revealed the brain areas that were most active during each decision they made.

When the teens made decisions leading to the cautious behaviors, the brains of the teens without substance use problems had more electrical activity than the brains of teens with substance use disorders. When the teens made decisions leading to risky behaviors, the same thing happened: those without substance problems had “busier brains” than those with substance problems. (See the brain images above.)

Lying down on the job

In other words, the brains of teens with substance use disorders just don't work as hard as the brains of typically developing teens when they're deciding between taking a risky or a cautious action. That could help explain why substance-using teens tend to take more risks: they don’t think as much about the possible consequences.

Lots of questions remain. Are these differences in brain activity the result of the drugs some teens use? Or were the differences there before the drug use began, maybe making it easier for them to start using the drug without considering the possible consequences?

We’ll know more as the research continues. But clearly, it pays to think twice before deciding to risk your health.

Find Help Near You

Use the SAMHSA Treatment Locator to find substance use or other mental health services in your area. If you are in an emergency situation, this toll-free, 24-hour hotline can help you get through this difficult time: call 1-800-273-TALK, or visit the Suicide Prevention Lifeline. We also have step by step guides on what to do to help yourself, a friend or a family member.

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