Research highlight

Neuroscience: Changes in brain activity during adolescence benefits learning

Nature Communications

December 20, 2017

Increased activity in regions of the brain that have previously been associated with increased risk taking during adolescence seems to also benefit learning from feedback. Published in Nature Communications, the findings suggest that adolescence may be a unique life phase for increased feedback-learning performance.

Previous research has shown that the part of the brain that is sensitive to reward (the striatum) tends to react more during parts of adolescence than during other periods of life. However, this increased activity has usually been linked to increased risk taking and negative health outcomes. Here, Sabine Peters and Eveline Crone show that there is a positive side to this sensitivity. They studied over 230 participants (numbers varied over individual assessment phases) between the ages of 8-25. Each participant was set a feedback learning task (in which good performance was rewarded with positive feedback) while undergoing functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Participants were assessed three times, which means that the authors have longitudinal data from participants ranging in age from 8-29 years old.

The results show that activity in the striatum responded to feedback, and that this response was strongest between the ages of 17-20. The more sensitive an individual was to feedback during learning, the better their current - and future - learning performance. Taken together, the findings show that the increased sensitivity to reward that is usually associated with negative behaviours in adolescence can also be leveraged positively, and can actually benefit learning.

doi: 10.1038/s41467-017-02174-z

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