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How brain development underlies advances in cognition and emotion in childhood and adolescence

Final Report Summary - BRAINDEVELOPMENT (How brain development underlies advances in cognition and emotion in childhood and adolescence)

This ERC starting project examined several burning questions in developmental cognitive neuroscience, such as: Which experiences at what ages create the greatest opportunities for learning? What are the neural signatures of risk taking and social competence? How can neuroscience help us to understand what can be expected of adolescents and when?

Adolescence is a fascinating time in development, which encompasses both risks and opportunities. On the one hand, adolescents improve in their ability to control their thoughts and actions for the purpose of specific goals, and they excel in finding creative solutions for complex problems. On the other hand, adolescents take more risks, are more sensitive to peer pressure. This paradoxical development was examined in relation to the dynamic changes in brain development during puberty and adolescence.

With the help of brain imaging technique (fMRI/MRI), we were able to examine brain activity when individuals were performing specific experimental tasks. All our original goals were met, we have tested more than 250 participants between ages 8-30 years at three time points with low attrition rate (less than 20%). Thus, the project set the stage for a longitudinal study that will continue in the upcoming years. We have had high impact with the outcomes of the studies as is evident from the scientific publications that followed from the project, as well as the documentary movie that was released based on the study (www.brainanddevelopmentlab.nl/braintime).

With this ERC starting grant, we have learned that brain regions that are important for controlling thoughts and actions develop over the course of adolescence, whereas brain regions that respond to basic and social emotions are often hypersensitive during adolescence. These findings lead to many challenging question such as whether adolescents can be held responsible for their behavior, such as in the cases of delinquency or substance abuse tendencies.