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Storm Season (con't)

Illustration by Dung Hoang

Storm Season (continued)

“Adolescent brains are not broken or defective adult brains,” observes Giedd, MD, who has used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) technology to scan thousands of immature cerebellums and prefrontal cortexes-in-progress. “Rather, they are exquisitely forged by the forces of our evolutionary history to have different features compared to children or adults.”

Those “different features” result in part from the dynamic remodeling of neuronal circuitry that’s ongoing throughout adolescence. The brain streamlines and specializes during these years: Those connections used most often get more intricately grooved and deeply sculpted, while less-traveled pathways erode.

“When we began our studies, we thought that by age 16, the brain would be as done as it’s going to get,” says Giedd, a father of three teens and one pre-teen. “But we’ve seen that the changes clearly ramp up in adolescence—and stay ramped up in 18-year-olds, 20-year-olds, 22-year-olds and beyond.”

It’s a time of great changeability paired with great vulnerability—a recipe for stress if ever there was one, Giedd says.

  

“Stress is a big issue here,” says Freya Sonenstein, PhD, MA, director of the Center for Adolescent Health, referring to urban Baltimore. Among adolescents seeking jobs and GEDs at a city-sponsored Youth Opportunity (YO!) Center near the Johns Hopkins East Baltimore campus, a full 44 percent have symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Notably, stress-reactive mental disorders—anxiety, schizophrenia, eating disorders and depression, for instance—take off in adolescence, observes Catherine Bradshaw, PhD, a Mental Health associate professor and associate director of the Johns Hopkins Center for the Prevention of Youth Violence.

The scientific study of adolescence dates to 1904 when psychologist G. Stanley Hall pegged the transition years between childhood and adulthood as a bona fide developmental period—one characterized by “storm and stress.” Prior to Hall, observations from the reliable likes of Aristotle and Socrates describe those transitioning from childhood to adulthood as “heated by nature as drunken men by wine,” and note youths’ inclination to contradict parents and tyrannize teachers.

Though associated most with the teen years, adolescence is a moving target. Some say it begins at puberty and ends at 18; others contend 21, at which point—presto!—adulthood is magically attained. The Centers for Disease Control lumps 10- through 24-year-olds into this developmental stage, though Giedd’s neuroimaging evidence shows the human brain continues to remodel in important ways clear through the late 20s.

Every bit as ambiguously amorphous as adolescence is the concept of “stress.” It can mean anything from flunking a physics test to years of sexual abuse. Its downstream consequences include everything from mood disorders to heart disease.

In 1904, psychologist G. Stanley Hall pegged the transition years between childhood and adulthood as a bona fide developmental period—one characterized by “storm and stress.”

“If you look at stress as a demand that the brain needs to adapt to, and then, by virtue of adapting, it’s better at problem solving or memorizing or whatever skills matter, then the goal isn’t to eliminate stress but to get the right amount,” says Giedd. He proposes there’s likely a “sweet spot” of stress that’s unique to each individual, beyond which that person is either underwhelmed or overwhelmed.

Figuring out what to measure, as well as when and how to measure it, is a key question in stress research. Some investigators ask study subjects to document life events—in the recent past, have you lost a pet? witnessed a murder? had a child? started a new job?—in an attempt to quantify stress based on how many stressors individuals are exposed to, how often they happen and the nature of those stressors.

Others are more interested in how individuals perceive those stressors. Glass-half-full types who are good at reframing expectations and adjusting attitudes probably experience less stress than those who don’t have innate coping skills or haven’t learned any.

And increasingly, investigators are measuring stress by assessing its physiological effects on individuals.

“Imagine the body as a stress sifter,” says Sara Johnson, PhD ’05, MPH ’01, a PFRH assistant professor. “The size of the holes in an adolescent’s sifter depends on his coping resources and buffers. Forget what he thinks about stress, or what he remembers about it. What shakes out at the bottom is the stress that’s left; the stuff that gets past all the buffers, or lack thereof, is important because this is what affects developing biological systems.”

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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