Researchers of the University of Pittsburgh studied the brains of adolescent and adult rats during a task in which they taught the rats to respond to a tone in a certain way, resulting in a tasty treat. According to the researchers, the brain region traditionally associated with reward and motivation – the nucleus accumbens – was activated similarly in adult and adolescent rats. Remarkably, the researchers observed dramatic age-related neural response differences in an unusual brain area – the dorsal stratium (DS) – during reward anticipation. The DS region, critically involved in motivational learning, habit formation and decision-making, was found, in comparison to adult rats, to be much more active in the adolescent rats when they expected a reward.
This indicates that teens process reward expectancy differently than adults, and as a result ‘reward can tap directly into a brain region that is critical for learning and habit formation’, says neuroscientist Bita Moghaddam. Because the symptoms of most mental illnesses are first manifested during adolescence, the researchers believe it is important to develop a critical understanding of how the adolescent brain processes reward and decision-making. This understanding could lead to better prevention methods of addiction, depression, schizophrenia, and other serious conditions that are linked to the reward system in adolescents.
Sturman, D., & Moghaddam, B. (2012). Striatum processes reward differently in adolescents versus adults Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1114137109
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