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Drugs & Health Blog

Who Has More Brain Power--You or Your Parents?

This blog post is archived and is no longer being updated. For the latest content, please visit the main Drugs & Health Blog page.
Sara Bellum

NIDA scientists are always saying that teens shouldn’t use drugs, tobacco, or alcohol. But do you know why they say that? Because of scientific studies like this one by Dr. Jay Giedd, which shows that your brain won’t reach its adult potential until you’re over 20 years old. If you’re a teen—even if you’re a high school senior—your brain is still maturing. Your neurons are still developing, and connections between different parts of your brain are still forming. Drugs and alcohol may mess up that process.

Along with his colleagues at the National Institute of Mental Health, Dr. Giedd created this scientific figure.

This picture is a cartoon depicting how the human brain continues to change between the ages of 4 and 21 years. As you move from left to right along the red arrow, the brain gets older. Above the arrow are side views of the brain (as if someone was standing in front of you, looking toward your right shoulder). Below the arrow are views of the brain from the top (like you are looking down on someone’s head).

So what’s with the rainbow colors? The colors represent the amount of “gray matter” (or active brain cells called neurons) that the researchers found in brains of different ages, using a brain imaging technique called MRI. Gray matter isn’t usually this colorful (hence the term ‘gray’ matter), but these brain pictures have been color-coded to show areas of more or less gray matter. Pink and red areas have the most gray matter, while green and blue areas have the least.

So, who do you think has more gray matter—you, or your parents? What does the figure show?

Yep—you do! It turns out that the number of neurons in your brain actually decreases as you get older. Younger brains have more gray matter (represented by the pink and red areas) than older brains (which are more green and blue). But wait—if the number of neurons in your brain is going down as you age, does that mean you’re getting dumber?

Fortunately, no. The total number of neurons in your brain isn’t as important as how your neurons connect to each other. As you get older, everything you learn and experience shapes the connections between the neurons in your brain. Over time, the connections between neurons become stronger. Your brain also develops more myelin—a white substance that wraps around neurons, insulates them, and helps them communicate more effectively. It’s like starting with a blob of clay and carving it away to make a sculpture: eventually you get a sleek, smart, mature adult brain, like the blue brains on the far right of the figure.

This figure also shows which parts of the brain mature first and which mature last. One of the very last areas to develop is the prefrontal cortex—the part of the brain located just behind your forehead. This part of the brain is responsible for helping you make good decisions, and isn’t fully mature until well after you graduate from high school! Scientists think this might help explain why teens tend to take more risks than adults, including experimenting with drugs.

Does all this mean that teens can’t make smart decisions? No. Teens can and do make good choices all the time. What this figure shows is that your brain doesn’t reach its full potential until you are in your mid-twenties. Basically, teenagers have a lot of brainpower still to come online—good reason to avoid stunting your potential brain power now with drugs or alcohol.

Watch some cool time-lapse movies showing how the brain changes with age.

Comments posted to the Drugs & Health Blog are from the general public and may contain inaccurate information. They do not represent the views of NIDA or any other federal government entity.


Interesting... Thankfully, as we age, experiences add to the equation and make up for some of our declining grey matter! :)
Mags @ Child Safety [link removed; does not exist]

wow, that's so kewl, i never knew that we as children have more gray spots than our parents. And i do agree that drugs are VERY BAD for you. i don't see how people could live with knowing that they are dying slowly, and that the fact that their family goes through a hard time when people are doing those things. Our brains as children are still growing, and i believe that Dr. Jay, is totally right. and by the way i also agree with ( Mags comment )

What is the legal age to start smoking? And why is the brain not fully developed until 20 years of age?

@DEAGLE--good question. The legal age to smoke cigarettes is 18. The brain isn't fully developed really until the mid-20's usually. Research shows that the adolescent brain undergoes rapid development, particularly in areas involved with thinking, decision-making, judgment, and impulse control. We don't really know why the brain is still developing at this time, but scientists believe it makes adolescents more likely to engage in risky behavior that can jeopardize their health and safety--like experimenting with drugs. And people who do drugs when they're young are more likely to have problems with addiction.

This is a very interesting article. For all of those who say they are smarter than their parents... They have been proven wrong. As shown by the picture, the gray matter in your brain does increase with age, giving you a more mature brain. As a child or teenager your brain is still in development and isn't fully grown until about 21.

The human brain continues to change between the ages of four and twenty-one years. the recent research stats that human brain will degenerate when we over 30 years old.

Such an interesting article about brain research! No matter what the age, I think we should avoid stunting our potential brain power with drugs or alcohol anyway. :)

Thomas S. [commercial link removed, per guidelines]

Interesting, will be good to teach children about this fact. To prevent them from drug and alcohol drinking.
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Where else could anyone get that kind of information in such a complete way of writing?

very interesting article, i think the more years you live the more knowledge you acquire, even though we grow up with ever moving technology, it does not always give us the mental tools we need.
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It’s hard to find knowledgeable folks on this topic, however you sound like you realize what you’re speaking about! Thanks [commercial link removed, per guidelines]

brain is so useful! [commercial link removed, per guidelines]

So, Does the gray matter make you smarter? Is that why you have more Gray matter when younger than older? What does Gray Matter do? Are Children smarter then adults?Is that really true on some levels? I red a book where the adult was Not very smart, And then There are child genius' and Scholars.To be a child scholar do you need more gray matter?

What great questions! The brain is an extremely complex organ and we are just beginning to understand how it works. Gray matter is a term for the cell bodies of neurons. The neurons that make up gray matter are involved in much of what the brain does: muscle control, sensory control (hearing, seeing), speech, memory, emotions… When you are born, your brain contains a very large number of neurons. As you learn things, connections between some of those neurons get stronger and join up to form larger networks of neurons. Connections that aren’t used fade away, making the remaining networks more efficient – they work better and “smarter.”

There is no way to look at someone’s brain and tell how smart they are. Plus, there are different types of “smart” – the child geniuses you mention are particularly gifted in one area, but less gifted in others. Everyone has their own individual strengths and weaknesses. To your final question: it is possible that geniuses do have structural differences in their brains – but those differences would vary depending on the person’s talent. The surest way to be a child scholar is to strengthen those neuronal connections by continually learning and doing new things – that would make YOU a genius!

It's a great post for the some concern company which are those do it that work
This is possibly one of the most common ways without people even knowing.
thank for share it..
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