Background: Risk-taking behavior is a major cause of morbidity and mortality in adolescence. In the context of decision theory and motivated (goal-directed) behavior, risk-taking reflects a pattern of decision-making that favors the selection of courses of action with uncertain and possibly harmful consequences. We present a triadic, neuroscience systems-based model of adolescent decision-making.
Method: We review the functional role and neurodevelopmental findings of three key structures in the control of motivated behavior, i.e. amygdala, nucleus accumbens, and medial/ventral prefrontal cortex. We adopt a cognitive neuroscience approach to motivated behavior that uses a temporal fragmentation of a generic motivated action. Predictions about the relative contributions of the triadic nodes to the three stages of a motivated action during adolescence are proposed.
Results: The propensity during adolescence for reward/novelty seeking in the face of uncertainty or potential harm might be explained by a strong reward system (nucleus accumbens), a weak harm-avoidant system (amygdala), and/or an inefficient supervisory system (medial/ventral prefrontal cortex). Perturbations in these systems may contribute to the expression of psychopathology, illustrated here with depression and anxiety.
Conclusions: A triadic model, integrated in a temporally organized map of motivated behavior, can provide a helpful framework that suggests specific hypotheses of neural bases of typical and atypical adolescent behavior.