There is speculation that the increase of risk taking behavior as children reach adolescence is primary due to seeking sensations, and is potentially linked the the changes in dopaminergic patterns as a child reaches puberty. There is evidence showing that increases in sensation seeking behavior is linked more with pubertal maturation instead of age, which argues against the idea that risk taking behaviors are only cognitive. There are important changes of the dopaminergic system during puberty, and given the role that dopaminergic activity plays in the regulation of motivation, it is likely that these changes can shape the development of socio-emotional behaviors in adolescence. “ The processing of social and emotional information relies on the networks underlying coding for affective and motivational processes. Key nodes of these networks comprise the amygdala, nucleus accumbens, orbitofrontal cortex, medial prefrontal cortex, and superior temporal sulcus. These regions have been implicated in diverse aspects of social processing, including the recognition of socially relevant stimuli such as faces, biological motion, social judgments, judging attractiveness, evaluating race, assessing other’s intentions, social reasoning, and many other aspects of social processing.” (Steinburg, 2008).
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The Ventral striatum and medial prefrontal portion of the brain are active during exposure to social stimulus as well as being sensitive to differences in reward magnitude, and there appears to be more activation when the adolescents being studied gained their peer’s acceptance. This suggests that being accepted by one’s peers seems to be processed within the brain the same way that other rewards are processed. These findings may help explain why adolescents engage in more risk taking behavior when they are with their peer group. During the remodeling of the dopaminergic system, beginning at about 9 or 10 years old, there is a reduction of density in the dopamine receptors located in the striatum and prefrontal cortex. This change is more prevalent within males than it is within females. (Sisk &Foster, 2004; Risk & Zehr, 2005; Teicher, Anderson, & Hostetter, Jr.
, 1995). It has been speculated that the changes of dopamine receptors is an underlying factor in the changes of reward processing exhibited by adolescents. Dopamine is critical within the brain’s reward center, changes such as increases, decreases, and redistribution of this neurotransmitter is most concentrated around the time of puberty. One theory of why adolescents behave in risky ways is that through a temporary imbalance of the dopamine receptors located in the prefrontal cortex creates a type of reward deficiency.
People who have this type of deficiency have been known to seek out extreme behaviors that will activate their reward center. While the idea that a reward deficiency may explain why adolescents behave in risky ways, it is however, undermined by several other studies “ that indicate elevated activity in subcortical regions, especially the accumbens, in response to reward during adolescence.” (Ernst et al., 2005; Galvan et al., 2005).
An alternative suggestion is that an increase in sensation seeking activities that adolescents engage in is not because of a dopamine deficit, but instead because of the temporary loss of their “ buffering capacity” that is linked with the decrease or loss of dopamine auto-receptors within the prefrontal cortex which serves as a regulatory negative-feedback function during childhood. (Dumont et al., 2004, cited in Ernst & Spear, in press). A loss of buffering could result in a loss of inhibitory control thus leading to unacceptable and potentially dangerous behaviors. It makes sense, in an evolutionary sense, for the emergence of certain behaviors to start at the onset of puberty, especially for males. Sensation seeking behavior influences people to venture into unknown territory, but this risk taking behavior may have been necessary for survival and reproduction. To our ancestors, a willingness to take certain risks may have had its advantages, and the refusal to participate in risk taking behaviors may have proven to be more dangerous for survival and the aforementioned reproduction.
Natural selection has been proven to favor at least some risky behavior when adolescence begins, especially when sexual reproduction becomes possible. Risk taking behavior also shows dominance and the willingness to take risks which may have been a way for achieving dominance and maintaining it within a social hierarchy. Ancestral risk takers may also have been better able at providing for themselves and their offspring, as well as have better reproductive success by keeping other males away. By delaying risk taking behaviors until puberty, individuals are more adult like in both strength and appearance. While this is all speculation about our distant relatives, in contemporary society there is evidence of adolescent females finding dominant and aggressive males as more sexually attractive. Studies have shown that gonadal steroids lend themselves to strong influences on adolescent’s memories of social situations, information, and bonding. Oxytocin also plays an important part in the limbic system of adolescents, and is best known for promoting social bonding, maternal behavior, and love. Oxytocin is also an important factor in regulation of memory and social stimuli.
It appears that gonadal hormones plays an important role as they effect how the structures the adolescent’s socio-emotional systems will respond to social stimuli. These hormonal changes are indicative as to why adolescents show a higher rate of activity within their limbic, para-limbic, and medial prefrontal areas when responding to both an emotional as well as social stimulus. Also, this explains the reasons behind the heightened awareness that adolescents have of others’ opinions and demonstrate “ imaginary audience” behavior.