The Adolescent Brain

Jan 26, 2023

Staci Jacobs

Brains are like race cars: Powerful, innovative, dynamic, tough, and function like well-oiled machines. Sometimes, however, steering a race car can be hard to maintain control of. Brains are not that different.


Our brains have their own accelerator as well as a brake like any car. The brain’s “brake” is called the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is largely responsible for higher and more complex brain functions such as reasoning, planning, understanding, and processing language and problem-solving. This part of our brain becomes crucial in decision-making and regulating social behaviors.


Development of the prefrontal cortex takes time. On average, the process takes 25 years. Research using MRIs shows that the brain experiences a surge of growth right before puberty (1), after which the brain spends about a decade or so rewiring itself (1). During adolescence, the rewiring of the brain specifically strengthens the prefrontal cortex, which allows for improved problem-solving and enhanced ability to process complex information. During this time, it is an opportunity for adolescents to develop interests, passions, and healthy habits that they will then bring into adulthood.


Until this process is complete, the brain’s “brake,” the prefrontal cortex, is not fully programmed, which leaves the “accelerator” unchecked for some time. In this case, the “accelerator” is the amygdala, the brain’s fear center, which is much more reactive in its danger-driven responses without the prefrontal cortex to help process and plan how to proceed (2). As a result, for many adolescents, there is more risk taking, meaning more potential for danger, since they do not yet have their “brake” in place. Over time as the prefrontal cortex develops and the structural connection to the amygdala strengthens, individuals are less likely to engage in high risk behaviors (3). Instead, they are more likely to think through what might happen, and avoid acting in ways that might be more dangerous. Additionally, with the prefrontal cortex online, there is more of a drive towards “safe” behaviors as well as becoming healthy social and emotional adults.


There are some actions we can take to promote development in this region. One such action is mindfulness, which can activate the frontmost part of the brain and strengthen the connections in the prefrontal cortex (4). Mindfulness practices can be a first step towards improving our attentional control, emotional processing, and emotion regulation that the prefrontal cortex is responsible for.


Understanding prefrontal cortex development and how to shape it, during or after adolescent years, can help you get into the driver’s seat to steer toward your life worth living.


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S. (2013, April 3). Maturation of the adolescent brain. Neuropsychiatric disease and treatment.

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[2] Baxter, M. G., & Croxson, P. L. (2012, December 14). Facing the role of the amygdala in

emotional information processing | PNAS. Facing the role of the amygdala in emotional

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[3] Jung, W. H., Lee, S., Lerman, C., & Kable, J. W. (2019, April 18). Amygdala functional and

structural connectivity predicts individual risk tolerance. Neuron. Retrieved January 19, 2023,




[4] Kang, D.H., Jo, H.J., Jung W.H., Kim S.H., Jung Y.H., Choi C.H., Lee U.S., An S.C., Jang

J.H., Kwon J.S. (2013, January 8). The effect of meditation on brain structure: Cortical thickness

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