Sunday, October 26, 2008

Adolescence: A Challenge with Hormones and Behaviour

Title: The Adolescent Brain, Hormones and Behaviour
Review: Janet Spring
Sato, S., Schulz, K., Sisk, C., Wood, R. (2008). Adolescents and androgens, receptors and rewards, Hormones and Behaviour, 53: 647 – 658.

Adolescence is a time when the brain is undergoing many significant changes. As hormone levels increase and levels are modified, many alterations have been noted in adolescent behaviour. In the study of Sato et al. (2008), the authors hypothesize that “pubertal secretion of gonadal hormones, their activation of steroid receptors in the brain, and the interaction between hormone and experience on adolescent brain development contribute to the behavioural changes seen during adolescence” (p. 647). In other words, typical actions, manners and general conduct of adolescents, which is often negative and immature is due to the brain development that is taking place as well as the attack of hormones that are secreted during puberty.

The authors base the above assumption on studies completed to date and review the results that point to the fact that pubertal androgens, or hormones have both “transient and long-term effects on reward circuits and motivated behaviour” (p. 648). Evidence also proves the theory that adolescents who take anabolic-androgenic steroids are upsetting the balance of pubertal androgens, negatively affecting brain development and behaviour. Adolescence has proven to be a period of important and major brain development when “behaviour circuits are remodeled and refined” (p. 648). The authors list these processes and the studies related to them: neurogenesis, programmed cell death, elaboration and pruning of dendritic aborizations and synapses, myelination, and sexual differentiation. They comment that during adolescence these processes are at risk if tampered with, leading to negative consequences for later adolescent and adult behaviour.

Many studies completed by Sato et al. (2008) and other researchers have evaluated the adolescent brain and behaviour by investigating male adult behaviour and brain functions related to the sex act. Studies completed on adolescents, adults and hamsters show that “sexual behaviour and other natural rewards activate neural reward pathways” (p. 649). If drugs such as cocaine, amphetamines, steroids, etc. are taken during adolescence in an abusive manner, they affect hormonal levels which in turn potentially “alter the normal maturation of brain and behaviour to produce exaggerated morphological and behavioural responses, acutely and chronically” (p. 653). Inappropriate behaviour in the form of aggression, sexual aggression and anger may result as the adolescent approaches adulthood.

As the adolescent becomes more competitive and develops a keen interest in sports activities, he or she may become dependent on steroids and other drugs of abuse. The authors warn that exposing the body to these may negatively affect the neural changes that are taking place during adolescence and adversely affect sexual behaviour. Consequently, they comment that further investigation must be completed in this area to shed light on the profound neural changes that occur during adolescence, a study that to this point in time is limited, and how these changes can be adversely affected by hormonal exposure.


The adolescent student is one who displays sudden changes in behaviour that seems to be affected by peer involvement, by extra-curricular activities and influences of home and school. However, the adolescent is also being bombarded by certain androgens as well as significant brain development that also affect behaviour and attitude. As a seemingly ‘normal’ child in the 6th grade who demonstrates discipline, compassion, and dedication to school moves to the 7th grade and beyond, his or her behaviour and overall personality sometimes changes drastically to an unmotivated, ‘spaced out’ kid, who is in need of guidance and re-tracking. I see this change every year, particularly with the music students I work with on an extra-curricular basis. It takes constant reminders to make the students who seem wired with ‘new attitude’ to focus on their instrumental or vocal studies. It also seems so much worse with the boys who need continual praise just to stay focused on the music lesson. The girls do show some changes in attitude, but not to the same extent as the boys.

Also, with outside negative influences, the adolescent may get involved in taking drugs for either sports achievement enhancement or for social/behavioural reasons. It is therefore very important for further study to be completed on the adolescent and the affects of drugs and hormone use on the development of the brain so that we may be well educated and proactive to assist our students through this very important developmental stage of their lives.

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