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Driven by Impulse to Bypass Plans

Illustration by Dung Hoang

Driven by Impulse to Bypass Plans

“The future” is a nebulous neverland for adolescents.

One reason is that their brains—particularly those parts where emotional control, rational decision making and planfulness happen—won’t be finished until… well, some point in the future.

Humans are unique—even among primates—in the complexity of their plan making. It’s a feat that calls on the frontal lobe of the brain, a region that’s still a work-in-progress in adolescents.

“Which is why we need to provide them with surrogate frontal lobes,” says Sara Johnson, PhD ’05, MPH ’01.

A PFRH assistant professor and the mother of an almost adolescent son, Johnson is on a mission to inform public health policy and marshal resources to better protect developmentally vulnerable youth.

There are ways—for instance, graduated licenses that phase in risk gradually until a young driver’s skills catch up—to help kids make better choices, and to reduce the chances that they’ll die or be seriously injured if they do make a bad choice, Johnson says. “We can do the basic research to figure out who’s vulnerable to stress, when and why, but then we also need to translate those findings by changing the environment,” she says.

It’s a universal public health issue, she declares, citing a recent article in The Lancet reporting that unintentional injury is the leading cause of death among adolescents around the world.

“If we can help parents and policymakers to understand adolescent development a little better, we might get a handle on that,” Johnson says.

Comments

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  • Rosalind Delisser

    Abu Dhabi, UAE 09/22/2011 04:09:31 AM

    Excellent article. The US Army would be an excellent place to find severe stress, rampant h/o of abuse, PTSD, serious substance abuse issues, and risky sexual behaviors....all in young people 18-24. A captive cohort?

    I look forward to the results of the link between cortisol and testosterone. Thank you!

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