At the forthcoming American Academy of Neurology’s 67th Annual Meeting in Washington, DC, in April, researchers from the University of California-San Francisco will present results from a study that suggests different brain processes are at work in preteens who are open to experimenting and exploring new things, compared with their more reticent peers.

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Some studies have tied willingness to explore with an area of the brain called the rostrolateral prefrontal cortex.

Study author Dr. Andrew Kayser, who is a member of the American Academy of Neurology, says that “the beginning of adolescence is associated with seeking new experiences and increasing exploratory behaviors,” but that little research has been conducted to measure that increase, or examine what processes are involved in this experience-seeking behavior.

“Studies with adults have begun to look at individual differences in willingness to seek new experiences,” says Dr. Kayser, “and some studies have tied willingness to explore with an area of the brain called the rostrolateral prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for higher level decision making.”

In his own study of preteens, Dr. Kayser recruited 62 girls aged 11-13, who completed a reward-based task and underwent magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans.

In the task, the participants were told they would earn points according to when they stopped the second hand of a clock making a complete rotation over 5 seconds.

However, the girls were not told which stopping times were associated with the highest rewards. To find out which stopping times corresponded to which scores, the participants were required to stop the clock at different times to see what the reward would be.

The researchers then split the participants into a group of 41 “explorers” and 21 “non-explorers,” based on the girls’ behavior in the task.

Comparing the brain scans of the two groups, the researchers found there was a stronger connection in the explorers between the rostrolateral prefrontal cortex and the posterior insula and putamen brain regions.

The posterior insula and putamen are parts of the brain that are associated with “state of the body” and carrying out actions. The researchers were intrigued to find from analyzing the MRI scans that these regions seem to influence the rostrolateral prefrontal cortex, rather than the other way around.

Dr. Kayser thinks the research will increase understanding of how exploration can lead to both positive and negative behaviors that can promote or reduce well-being in teenagers:

If we can better understand these brain connections, down the road we may be able to come up with a way to better identify teens most likely to engage in dangerous or risky behaviors.”

In 2012, Medical News Today reported on a study by Chinese researchers that suggested there are differences in the brains of internet-addicted and non-addicted teenagers.

The researchers, from the Chinese Academy of Sciences and other research centers in China, compared the brain scans of 18 teenagers diagnosed with Internet addiction disorder and 18 teens without this diagnosis, and reported differences in white matter density in over 20 brain regions.

From their results, the Chinese researchers concluded that Internet addiction disorder is “characterized by impairment of white matter fibers connecting brain regions involved in emotional generation and processing, executive attention, decision making and cognitive control.”

However, MNT reminded readers that because the number of participants in that study was so small, the participants were not followed over a period, and the researchers did not know what the participants’ brains were like before their addiction diagnosis, the results of this study should be interpreted with caution.