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Clichés associated with teen brain are true

WILLMAR -- Figuring out why teenagers do the things they do can be perplexing to parents. Toss in alcohol and a teen's brain can be "hijacked," said Dr. Ken Winters, the keynote speaker Thursday during the PACT 4 Families Collaborative 2008 Community Conference on the Brain in Willmar.

Winters, director of the Center for Adolescent Substance Abuse Research, is a professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the U of M.

He is also a senior scientist with the Treatment Research Institute in Philadelphia.

With a combination of humor and scientific research, Winters said teens really can't help acting how they do sometimes -- impulsive, risky, irritable and rebellious -- because their brains aren't fully developed until they're 25 years old.

Yet at age 16, he said, they are allowed to drive.

At 18, they can go to war, smoke and gamble.

At 21, they can legally drink alcohol.

There's only one thing a person can't do until they're 25 -- rent a car.

Winters said rental car companies based that business decision on research supported with brain imaging of adolescents from age 9 and up to age 25.

Winters displayed an ad for an insurance company that asked "why do most 16-year-olds drive like they're missing a part of their brains? Because they are."

The front part of the brain, which has more control over behavior and what Winters calls the "on second thought" restraint, is slower to develop.

That puts the back part of the brain in control, where excitement and the need for physical activity thrives.

"It's a brain that has difficulty resisting impulses," Winters said.

When alcohol or drugs are used, chemical reactions to the immature brain can increase the risky behaviors and cause a huge dose of the pleasure-causing neurotransmitter dopamine to be released. The brain tries to correct the imbalance, creating a dangerous see-saw of excitement and funk.

"Never underestimate the effects of alcohol on the developing brain," he said.

Winters said parents should encourage their adolescents to get involved with activities that capitalize on the strengths of the developing brain, like music and sports, and teach them decision-making skills and healthy lifestyles that promote good brain development.

"Their brain is getting molded and shaped," said Winters, who also said parents need to pick their battles and tolerate the "oops" behavior of their children while the young brains are maturing.

And don't give up hope, he said. When the 16-year-old teen turns 25, those exasperating activities will go away.

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Carolyn Lange

A reporter for 35 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

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