The Teenage Brain – use it or lose it

Adolescent brains undergo massive changes and do not reach maturity until their mid-twenties. This might not be news to you, but in effect you can in fact ‘condition’ your brain by building new ‘pathways’ during your teens.

According to a UNICEF report called The Adolescent Brain: a second window of opportunity: ‘a growing body of scientific knowledge shows that experience and environment also combine with genetics to shape the brains of adolescents. This presents a second, crucially important window of opportunity to influence the development of children’s brains – and thus, their futures’.

The brain, being the body’s most complex organ, effectively has two major developmental phases. Over 90% of its development happens in the first phase, before the age of six. The second typically starts around age 12 and continues into the mid-twenties, during which due to (neuro)plasticity - the ability to change and adapt - it can reorganise itself biologically, chemically and physically; any learning and new experiences result in new pathways being strengthened.

“We’re looking at a sensitive period or critical period,” explains Dr Beatriz Luna, a Professor and the Director of Pittsburgh School of Medicine’s Laboratory of Neurocognitive Development. “Adolescence is a time when things are really shaping in a way that they’re not shaped at any other time in the lifespan,” continues Luna.

A Texas University report on Adolescent Brain Development agrees that ‘the reconstruction period’ is vital: "This ‘use it or lose it’ period is critical; thoughts, beliefs, interests, abilities, and skills developed now will endure a lifetime….or may be lost forever.

The ‘lost forever’ refers to a process called synaptic pruning, similar in some ways to how you might prune a plant (trim or cutaway superfluous parts). Synapses are structures that allow neurons to transmit a message to another neuron.

Although pruning occurs in the brain throughout life, during the critical adolescent phase, it is at its peak, its purpose being to make the brain more efficient. The process “transforms an unwieldy network of small pathways into a better organized system of superhighways.”

It’s worth investing therefore, in activities that can help condition the brain in the right direction: learning new skills, sports, music, art, reading, languages... empathy. All thepositive, healthy life-skills can be reinforced and will set us up for a better future.

As Dr Luna concludes, “When adolescence comes, it’s a time when the brain says, ‘OK, we’re going to figure out what you’ve been using and haven’t been using.’”

With this in mind, think about what you might want to ‘lose’ -- then do those activities less or not at all -- and consider what you want to hard-wire in your brain for life. Now start reinforcing those.

Suggested links:

Take a fascinating tour of the teenage brain with Pittsburgh researcher Dr. Beatriz Luna | Pittsburgh is Kidsburgh

Brain Plasticity (Neuroplasticity) | Simply Psychology

Screen Time and the Brain | Harvard Medical School

NIMH » The Teen Brain: 7 Things to Know (

Microsoft Word - v10n18.docx (

adolescent_brain_a_second_window_of_opportunity_a_compendium.pdf (

Microsoft Word - JP.docx (