Brain emotion circuit sparks as teen girls size up peers

What is going on in teenagers’ brains as their drive for peer approval begins to eclipse their family affiliations? Brain scans of teens sizing each other up reveal an emotion circuit activating more in girls as they grow older, but not in boys. The study by Daniel Pine, M.D., of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), part of National Institutes of Health, and colleagues, shows how emotion circuitry diverges in the male and female brain during a developmental stage in which girls are at increased risk for developing mood and anxiety disorders.

"During this time of heightened sensitivity to interpersonal stress and peers’ perceptions, girls are becoming increasingly preoccupied with how individual peers view them, while boys tend to become more focused on their status within group pecking orders," explained Pine. "However, in the study, the prospect of interacting with peers activated brain circuitry involved in approaching others, rather than circuitry responsible for withdrawal and fear, which is associated with anxiety and depression."

Pine, Amanda Guyer, Ph.D., Eric Nelson, Ph.D., and colleagues at NIMH and Georgia State University, report on one of the first studies to reveal the workings of the teen brain in a simulated real-world social interaction, in the July, 2009 issue of the journal Child Development.

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