Q&A with Adriana Galvan
We’ve all seen the headlines: “Your teenager’s brain is crazy,” “Teen brain wired to take risks,” “Why teenagers take dumb risks.” Less often covered is the flip side: how the changing adolescent brain provides an unparalleled opportunity for learning and innovation.
That’s the shift in discussion Adriana Galvan of UCLA wants to see happen surrounding the adolescent brain. Work by her and colleagues is revealing that the same changes in the brain that make adolescents sensitive to negative environmental changes, such as peer pressure to drink alcohol and experiment with other substances, make them sensitive to positive changes, such as movements for social impact.
One of the recipients of this year’s Young Investigator Award, Galvan will be discussing her research at the CNS annual conference in New York next month. She spoke with CNS about some of the new tools her lab is using to understand those neural changes in adolescents, how a robust understanding of those changes can support social, health, and educational efforts, and even how susceptibility to risk can be a good thing for learning teens.
CNS: Why do you personally study the adolescent brain?
Galvan: Great question! I am fascinated by the transition from dependence (on parents/caregivers) to independence (into adulthood) and the emotional and neurobiological changes that have evolved to support that transition. Besides, adolescents are just fun to be around!
CNS: What is unique about the brain of adolescents compared to those of people younger and older?
Galvan: The adolescent brain is thirsty for exploration, learning, and social relationships. Greater sensitivity (compared to people younger and older) in limbic and motivational circuitry of the adolescent brain contribute to these behaviors. It is why adolescents express strong (positive and negative) emotional reactivity.
CNS: What has your work found makes adolescents more susceptible to environmental influences?
Galvan: The brain regions that undergo the most development during adolescence, including the striatum, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex, are those that are most sensitive and responsive to positive and negative environmental conditions. For instance, our research on how the teen brain responds to smoking cues shows that although the reward system of the teen brain is, indeed, more easily aroused by smoking ads than the adult brain, it is also more sensitive to provocative cigarette warning labels. This finding suggests that anti-smoking ads are more effective at deterring smoking in teens than in adults, just as smoking promotions are more effective at encouraging smoking in teens than in adults.
CNS: What can you share with us about any new findings you will be presenting in your award lecture?
Galvan: Changes in the mesolimbic dopamine system during adolescence facilitate enhanced learning, detection of opportunities, and sensitivity to peer feedback compared to adults. Together, these characteristics have implications for how adolescents are taught new things, both in and out of the classroom context. For instance, knowing that peers are a powerful source of influence can be leveraged to impart knowledge about risk-taking, health, and choices that may be more effective than teaching from educators and parents.
CNS: Can you elaborate on that enhanced learning capability a bit more?
Galvan: As adolescents became increasingly eager to utilize their expanding intellectual skills and explore new social relationships, they begin to appreciate the influence they have in enacting change, either through political movements, activism for causes they believe in, or lending social support to a friend in need. Encouraging their opportunity to learn more about their environment and their role in shaping the environment can empower their naturally creative juices.
We should celebrate this period of development, not pathologize it.
CNS: Can you describe any novel techniques your lab has been using in its investigations?
Galvan: In addition to using neuroimaging techniques that give us a good snapshot of the teen brain “in action,” my lab aims to couple the neuroimaging findings with adolescents’ rearing environment. To this end, we conduct extensive in-home interviews that provide a broader contextual understanding of the adolescents’ daily lives. We interview parents and family members, conduct an in-depth assessment of the neighborhood, and take photographs of their sleep environment. A separate line of research aims to gain greater traction on the mesolimbic dopamine system, which has traditionally been challenging to do. Thus, we have also begun to incorporate the assessment of eyeblink rate, which is benchmarked as a good proxy for the dopamine system, into our studies. This technique is less burdensome and less expensive than neuroimaging so it has promise as a feasible and useful tool for use in youth in whom direct measurements of dopamine are prohibitively invasive.
CNS: What is different about the brains of adolescent risk-takers?
Galvan: Although there is variability in the risk-taking behaviors they engage in, most adolescents are risk-takers! This is not necessarily a bad thing as many important life lessons are learned through trial and error. It becomes problematic when the risk-taking leads to unhealthy habits or destructive behavior. To steer teens towards positive behavior, it is important for them to see the value and pleasure of beneficial risks (e.g. standing up for a cause they believe in).
CNS: How does your work differ from or fit in with other work on the adolescent brain?
Galvan: Labs around the world have shown that the adolescent brain is “special”—that adolescents are not simply mini-adults or overgrown children, neurobiologically speaking. Early on, the field focused on the potentially negative effects of greater arousability of the adolescent brain on real-life behavior (e.g. risk-taking). Emerging research from our lab shows that the neural sensitivity to risk in adolescence can actually help the adolescent make optimal choices and better evaluate options, even better than adults.
CNS: What do you most want people to understand about your work?
Galvan: That neurobiological changes triggered by puberty in the adolescent brain are adaptive for the individual and beneficial for society. At no other time in life is there greater intrinsic motivation to explore new experiences than during adolescence. We should celebrate this period of development, not pathologize it. The science on the adolescent brain has, and will continue to, inform public expectation, policy and sanctions for adolescents.
-Lisa M.P. Munoz
Adriana Galvan will give her award lecture on Monday, April 4, 2016, 4:00 –5:00 pm, in the Grand Ballroom West at the New York Hilton Midtown Hotel, as part of the CNS 23rd annual meeting.