MRI scans to help researchers study impulsive behaviour in teenagers

15 May 2013

Teenagers’ moodiness and impulsive behaviours may be all in the head – literally. Researchers at Cambridge University have begun to study whether changes in the brain’s chemistry are associated with people behaving less impulsively as they grow older.

The study will involve brain scans of 300 subjects, ages 14-24, to identify how their brains change as they age. The research may also reveal information about the emergence of mental disorders in young adults, BBC News reported.

Ed Bullmore, professor of psychiatry at Cambridge University, told BBC News that MRI scans will provide the researchers with good pictures of how the anatomy of the brain changes over the course of its development.

“We are particularly interested in how the tissue at the centre of the brain, known as white matter, might change over the course of development,” he said.

In basic terms, the white matter of the brain contains nerve fibres that connect to different regions of the brain.

The study by the Cambridge University researchers is expected to reveal gradual changes in the white matter of the subjects as their brains begin to regulate hormone-generated signals, with the result being the subjects gaining control of impulsive behaviours.

The study participants will also take tests to assess their propensity toward risky and impulsive behaviour.

The expectation is that the emergence of more sensible behaviour will correlate with changes in the wiring of the brain’s white matter.

The goal of the study is generate better understanding of teenagers’ brain chemistry and structure, so potential problems can be identified early on, enable more accurate prognosis, and ultimately facilitate the development of better treatments for disorders.

“By building understanding I think we can get away from the idea that mental illness in young people is primarily a moral problem or a random disaster and try and move understanding more toward a rational direction,” BBC News quoted Bullmore as saying.

“Can we think about psychosis, depression and other disorders that arise in adolescence as departures from the normal process of developmental change in the brain?”

MRI scans image via Shutterstock

Tina Costanza was a journalist and sub-editor at Silicon Republic