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Brain Immaturity Could Explain Teen Crash Rate

Environmental Impact

Lily and Zoe Ulrich, 15-year-old identical twins from Frederick, have been part of Giedd's study at NIH for two years. When they signed up, they answered questions about their diet, athletics, social habits, peer pressure, language skills and intellectual achievements.

The blond, 5-foot-4 sisters wear glasses, earn straight A's and often finish each other's sentences. They will receive their learner's permits this month. "I'm excited . . . it's really cool," Lily said. "I'm a little more nervous," said Zoe. "We think the same a lot of the time but not always."

Growth Takes Longer Than Presumed: A study by the National Institute of Mental Health and UCLA shows that the region of the brain that inhibits risky behavior does not mature as quickly as previously thought.
Accident Victims: The number of young people killed in traffic accidents has surged in recent weeks.
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Giedd would like to know why.

Sitting in his closet-size office in NIH's sprawling Building 10, he turns to his laptop, where the fruit of 13 years' work appears. It's an eight-second, time-lapse image of the brain, swept by a vivid blue wave symbolizing maturing gray matter. The color engulfs the frontal lobes and ends in "a direct hit," Giedd said, with the dorsal-lateral prefrontal cortex, just behind the brow.

About as thick and wide as a silver dollar, this region distinguishes humans from other animals. From it, scientists believe, come judgments and values, long-term goals, the weighing of risks and consequences -- what parents call wisdom or common sense and what science calls "executive functions."

While society and tradition have placed the point of intellectual maturity, the "age of reason," years earlier, the study -- an international effort led by NIH's Institute of Mental Health and UCLA's Laboratory of Neuro Imaging -- shows it comes at about age 25.

The process is generally completed a year or two earlier in women but varies greatly from person to person. Why that is, Giedd said, "we still don't know."

"We have to find out what matters. Diet? Education, video games? Medicine, parenting, music? Is the biggest factor whether you're a musician or a jock or the amount of sleep you get?"

As important, Giedd said, is the study's finding that the brain matures in a series of fits and starts. While it remains to be proved, he said, this "may be a key to when the brain is most receptive" to learning certain skills, such as driving.

The study, which is ongoing, involves scanning the brains of 2,000 people ages 4 through 26 using magnetic resonance imaging, a radiation-free tool that permits researchers to view the organs of healthy people in minute detail.

Every two years, study participants come to the Bethesda-based National Institute of Mental Health, where they are scanned and interviewed. Half the children are healthy, and half have brain-related disorders. In the next phase, researchers plan to focus almost solely on twins, hoping to expand beyond the 180 pairs participating now, to measure the impact of environmental factors on the maturing brain.

Giedd said he's been bashed by teenagers who said the study suggests they're brain-damaged. On the contrary, he said: "Teenagers' brains are not broken; they're just still under construction."

The pattern probably serves an evolutionary purpose, he said, perhaps preparing youths to leave their families and fend for themselves, without wasting energy worrying about it.

The findings imply that many life choices -- college and career, marriage and military service -- often are made before the brain's decision-making center comes fully online. But for young adults, "dying on a highway is the biggest risk out there," Giedd said. "What if we could predict earlier in life what could happen later?"

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