Individual differences in working memory may predict early sexual activity and unprotected sex during adolescence, according to a study of impulse control and risky sexual behavior among 12-15-year-olds.

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Teens who have problems regulating impulsivity are at increased risk for unintended pregnancies.

Previous studies have found that adolescents who have problems regulating impulse control are more likely to engage in risky sexual behavior, putting them at increased risk for sexually transmitted diseases and unintended pregnancies.

In the new study – published in Child Development – researchers from the University of Oregon, the University of Pennsylvania, and the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia examined the relationship between cognitive abilities and impulse control.

“We extended previous findings by showing for the first time that individuals who have pre-existing weakness in working memory are more likely to have difficulty controlling impulsive tendencies in early to mid-adolescence,” explains Atika Khurana, assistant professor of counseling psychology and human services at the University of Oregon, who led the study.

“Furthermore,” Khurana adds, “changes in these impulsive tendencies are associated with early and unprotected sex in adolescents, even after taking into account parents’ socioeconomic status, involvement and monitoring of sexual behavior.”

The participants in this study were 360 adolescents aged between 12 and 15 who were from a variety of racial/ethnic backgrounds and socioeconomic groups.

The adolescents took part in experiments designed to measure working memory and their ability focus their attention on information relevant to a task. The participants’ impulsivity was also assessed in a task that tested their ability to delay gratification. Levels of “sensation seeking” – the tendency to seek excitement without thinking – was self-reported in the study by the adolescents.

Private, computer-assisted self-interviewing techniques were also used to collect data on the age when the participants first had sex, whether they had experienced unprotected sex and other details of risky sexual involvement.

The study found that participants who scored as having weak working memory reported higher levels of impulsivity over a follow-up period of 2 years, and were found to be at increased likelihood for engaging in sex early and having unprotected sex.

Those who were found to have weak working memory were also more likely to report that the short-term desire for sex, for them, outweighs the risks of long-term consequences, such as sexually transmitted diseases and unintended pregnancy.

However, weak working memory was not found to be associated with high levels of sensation seeking, and sensation seeking was not linked with increased likelihood of risky sexual practices.

Both working memory and likelihood of risky sexual behavior were found to be related to the socioeconomic status of the adolescents’ families and the extent to which their parents were involved in their lives. However, when the researchers took these influences into account, they calculated that the association between working memory sexual risk-taking remained strong.

Dan Romer, research director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, says of the study’s findings:

Our findings identify alternative ways to intervene preventively. For adolescents who have weak ability to override strong impulses, improvements in working memory may provide a pathway to greater control over risky sexual behavior. Certain parenting practices, characterized by nurturing and responsive involvement, have been shown to support the development of working memory. Interventions could aim to strengthen these types of parenting practices as well.”

In January, a study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health found that teenage girls use different brain regions when making hypothetical low- and high-risk decisions about sex.