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Vol. LVII, No. 16
August 12, 2005

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NIMH's Giedd Lectures on Teen Brain

Dr. Jay Giedd
Contrary to what most parents have thought at least once, "teens really do have brains," quipped Dr. Jay Giedd, NIMH intramural scientist, in a lecture on the "Teen Brain Under Construction." His talk was the kick-off event for the recent NIH Parenting Festival.

Giedd said scientists have only recently learned more about the trajectories of brain growth. One of the findings he discussed showed the frontal cortex area — which governs judgment, decision-making and impulse control — doesn't fully mature until around age 25.

"That really threw us," he said. "We used to joke about having to be 25 to rent a car, but there's tons of data from insurance reports [showing] that 24-year-olds are costing them more than 44-year-olds."

So why is that? "It must be behavior and impulse control," he said. "Whatever these changes are, the top 10 bad things that happen to teens involve emotion and behavior."

Physically, Giedd said, the teen years and early 20s represent an incredibly healthy time of life, in terms of cancer, heart disease and other serious illnesses. But with accidents as the leading cause of death in adolescents, and suicide following close behind, "this isn't a great time emotionally and psychologically. This is the great paradox of adolescence: right at the time you should be on the top of your game, you're not."

The next step in Giedd's research, he said, is to learn more about what influences brain growth, for good or bad. "Ultimately, we want to use these findings to treat illness and enhance development."

One of the things scientists have come to understand, though, is that parents do have something to do with their children's brain development.

"From imaging studies, one of the things that seems intriguing is this notion of modeling...that the brain is pretty adept at learning by example," he said. "As parents, we teach a lot when we don't even know we're teaching, just by showing how we treat our spouses, how we treat other people, what we talk about in the car on the way home...things that a parent says in the car can stick with them for years. They're listening even though it may appear they're not."

What can we do to change our kids? "Well, start with yourself in terms of what you show by example," Giedd concluded.

To borrow an audiotape of this lecture, call (301) 443-4533.

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