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Nuffield-funded neuroscientist Sarah-Jayne Blakemore of University College London (UCL) has been awarded the 2015 Klaus J. Jacobs Research Prize in recognition of her ground-breaking achievements in child and youth development.
Until about 15 years ago, the prevailing opinion among neuroscientists was that no major neurodevelopmental changes occur after early childhood; Blakemore has delivered a body of scientific evidence demonstrating that the adolescent brain is continuing to develop.
The social brain develops in adolescence
Professor Blakemore’s research shows that in adolescence changes occur in the processing of emotional and social information about other people, as well as self-awareness and decision-making. Her findings demonstrate that neural responses to social exclusion, risky decisions and the interpretation of social emotions continue to develop during adolescence.
The social brain (that is, the brain regions involved in understanding other people) undergoes structural changes and functional reorganisation during the second decade of life, possibly reflecting a sensitive period for adapting to one’s social environment. Typical adolescent behaviour, therefore, should not be chiefly attributed to hormones or to changes in the social environment. Instead, adolescent behaviour is at least partly linked to biological developments in the brain that are adaptive, natural and inevitable. Typical adolescent behaviour, such as risk-taking and peer influence, may be advantageous as these behaviours are intrinsically rooted in human development and, therefore, should be re-framed as exploratory and potentially socially beneficial – as opposed to only risky and problematic.