Examining the link between puberty and functional brain development

Kristie Auman-Bauer
September 09, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Puberty causes significant physical and psychological changes, especially in brain development, changing the way adolescents think and behave. Despite this, the effects of puberty on brain development is not well known.

To gain a better understanding, two Penn State researchers reviewed published studies about the role puberty hormones play in social behavior, brain development, and brain function. The work was published recently in the journal Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience.

Suzy Scherf, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience, and Junqiang Dai, graduate student in psychology, provided a comprehensive review of findings from 28 neuroimaging studies investigating the relation between puberty and functional brain development.

According to Scherf, although there is a long history of studying the influence of pubertal hormones on brain function and structure, the research in this field is young.

“Our goal was to understand the correlations as well as inconsistencies in study findings," said Scherf.

Focusing on brain development, Scherf and Dai organized the 28 studies into four domains: reward, facial emoting, social evaluation and cognitive processing. They examined the study results via label-based meta-analysis, which enabled them to examine findings across multiple studies, ruling out individual study limitations.

“By using label-based meta-analysis, we were able to identify emerging findings, develop confidence in those findings, and establish overall patterns,” Dai explained.

Scherf, a Social Science Research Institute co-funded faculty member who also heads up the Laboratory of Developmental Neuroscience at Penn State, said she was surprised to find that, across the studies, they found little evidence to support the popular theory that adolescents are motivated to pursue reward experiences. Previous studies have suggested that the reward-processing area in the brain develops faster than other areas during puberty.

However, Scherf pointed out that they only analyzed nine existing studies in this particular area.

“Our results do not mean that an association does not exist, just that the literature at the moment does not support it. We also found limited convergence in other areas relating to functional brain development and puberty," said Scherf.

This is important, said the researchers, because their findings can help guide other researchers and grant decision-makers about the current state of findings, as well as the strengths and limitations in the field.

“It really emphasizes the need for more interdisciplinary work conducted by teams of scientists to move the field forward,” said Scherf.

To aid in this endeavor, Dai and Scherf in the paper provide recommendations that can help guide future research studying the role of puberty in the development of brain function.

The National Institute of Mental Health supported this work.

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated September 09, 2019