Screwing the youth

By BRIAN C. JONES  |  August 20, 2007

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Are we really adults at 18?
Dr. Gregory K. Fritz knows part of the answer.
 
Fritz is director of child and adolescent psychiatry at the Brown University medical school and secretary of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. He’s also academic director at Emma Pendleton Bradley Hospital, the children’s psychiatric center in East Providence and director of child psychiatry at Rhode Island Hospital.
 
Fritz says a person closes in on adulthood when he or she completes the transition from childhood: adolescence. But figuring that endpoint is harder than determining its beginning, which many experts put at the onset of puberty.
 
As adolescents’ bodies make their final, dramatic growth spurt and their sexual systems are maturing, they also undergo a social and psychological shift away from their parents, Fritz says, gravitating toward friends and charismatic adults outside the home.
 
“It’s one of the things that makes adolescents such great soldiers,” he says, saying older teenagers readily bond with each other, forming cohesive military units. They are influenced by mentors like commanding officers, teachers, and coaches. “At best, it’s a wonderful thing and it helps you develop and make the transition from childhood to adulthood,” Fritz says. “At worst, your mentor is a criminal in the ACI, who exploits your attachment so that you can get assaulted every night, and meanwhile, he’s teaching you how to become a criminal.”
 
Defining the age of adulthood is difficult, Fritz says, because of wide variations among individuals. He also notes: “Because you are physically mature doesn’t mean you are psychologically mature.”

Moreover, it’s not all that clear when the brain fully develops.
 
Lately, scientists have been using advanced scanning techniques to peer into the brain, including the frontal region, which governs critical functions such as decision-making. They’re finding this part of the brain may take longer to fully develop than once thought.
 
Dr. Daniel P. Dickstein is the newly hired director of pediatric mood, imaging and neurodevelopment at Bradley Hospital. A graduate of Brown medical school’s pediatric and psychiatric programs, Dickstein worked for five years at the National Institute of Mental Health.
 
At the NIMH, Dickstein’s colleagues made a unique study of 13 children, taking magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) readings from the time they were young children and periodically after that into their 20s. The researchers gained new insights into brain development. People are born with 100 billion neurons, or nerve cells. Over time, the number of neurons decrease, but vital connections between them increase, Dickstein says.
 
“It matters which part of the brain is developing,” he says. “And what [these images show] is that the older parts of the brain, that are associated with more basic function, vision, moving your body, mature earlier. And then, with time, the parts of the brain that are involved with attention, decision-making — you could even say risk-taking and some aspects of emotion-regulation — mature later.”
 
How long does it take?

“People think that up to age 25 is when the optimum neural changes are occurring,” Dickstein says.

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