Levelling up research on the adolescent brain

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During adolescence, the brain undergoes a fundamental reorganisation. It is a time when many mental illnesses can first emerge, but it’s unclear how this happens. Tobias Hauser explains that harnessing the power of citizen science through games could be key to understanding this developmental period.

Juanita Bawagan: Decision-making is behind every move we make and all our major life choices. What happens in our brains when we make decisions?

Tobias Hauser: As we move through the world, millions of pieces of information enter our brain through our eyes, ears and other sensory organs. What happens between these inputs and our actual behaviour, when we make decisions, ranges from very simple to extremely complex.

The simplest decisions are those we don’t even think about. If a snake lunges at you, you’ll jump back. While this is still a decision, it’s really more of a reflex. At the other end of the scale, questions such as ‘what do I want to study?’ have many long-term consequences and should be considered very carefully. Researchers think that the prefrontal cortex is responsible for complex decisions that require really thinking about what could happen in the future, in order to make a good choice – although what each person considers good is very subjective and changes over time.

“We know that teenagers are bigger risk takers, more susceptible to peer influence and less likely to follow advice than adults, but what we don’t fully understand is what could be driving these behaviours.”

JB: Why are you particularly interested in adolescent decision-making?

TH: Adolescence is a very important, but often misunderstood period. We know that teenagers are bigger risk takers, more susceptible to peer influence and less likely to follow advice than adults, but what we don’t fully understand is what could be driving these behaviours.

For example, teenagers are often stereotyped as stubborn or disrespectful when they ignore advice from adults. In a recent study, we found that teenagers were less likely to follow advice than younger children, but also that they were much more aware of their thought processes and performance. This suggests that they can recognise bad advice and realise that if they are confident in their own decision, they should stick to it. What has typically been seen as a blatant disregard for guidance may in fact be evidence of the emergence of good and independent decision-making.

JB: You’ve just launched Brain Explorer. Why did you choose to create a gaming app to understand the brain?

TH: Brain Explorer, like all my research, is driven by a desire to understand why and how mental health problems arise. The majority of psychiatric disorders emerge before early adulthood, and adolescence is a period in which the brain undergoes a fundamental reorganisation. If the brain doesn’t develop as it should, that can lead to mental health problems. But there is very little data that ties this all together.

Brain Explorer aims to fill this gap. In the app, you’re an astronaut travelling through the galaxy solving puzzles and answering questions about yourself along the way. The games are fun, but also linked to our brain research. The data that people share anonymously helps us gain a better understanding of decision-making and how it may be linked to mental illnesses.

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