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Brain Scans Shed Light on Teen Peer Pressure

Study Suggests Teens May Improve Ability to Resist Peer Pressure Over Time

By Bill Hendrick
WebMD Health News

Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

March 9, 2011 -- Specific areas in the brain that may be linked to sensations of reward and resistance to risk-taking become increasingly active in early adolescence, indicating that over time the youths may be improving their ability to resist peer pressure, a new study suggests.

Researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans to study blood flow in the brains of 24 girls and 14 boys when they were 10 years old and again at age 13, after the youngsters moved into early adolescence.

During the scans, the children were shown photos of faces making neutral, angry, fearful, happy, and sad expressions.

At the end of the study the researchers analyzed the scans and found that activity had increased significantly in the three-year period in regions of the brain that are considered reward processing centers.

The researchers also took into consideration what the children told them on study surveys about their ability to resist peer influences and engagement in risky or delinquent behavior.

Brain Activity and Peer Pressure

Increases in brain activity in the regions associated with reward processing and emotional regulation correlated over time with increases in the children's self-reports of resistance to peer influence, according to the study.

"It's just that peer pressure is increasing because they spend a lot more time with peers during this time and less with family," Jennifer H. Pfeifer, PhD, of the University of Oregon, says in a news release. "So it is a good thing that resistance to such influences is actually strengthening in their brains."

The researchers suggest that it would be helpful to explore whether basic training in emotion regulation techniques may support resistance to peer pressure and prevent risky behavior during the transition period to adolescence and beyond.

"This is basic research that hopefully is laying the foundation for future studies with even more clinical relevance," says Pfeifer, director of the university's Developmental Social Neuroscience Lab. "We really have a lot to learn about how the brain responds to really basic emotional stimuli across development."

Pfiefer says that if teenagers can learn to "better modulate their emotional response to a peer who is trying to persuade them to do something unwise, they will be less susceptible to that external influence."

The study is published in the March 10 issue of the journal Neuron.

SOURCES: News release, University of Oregon.News release, Cell Press.Pfeifer, J. Neuron, March 10, 2011: pp 1029-1036.

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