Adolescence is a developmental period often characterized as a time of impulsive and risky choices leading to increased incidence of unintentional injuries and violence, alcohol and drug abuse, unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. Traditional neurobiological and cognitive explanations for such suboptimal choices and actions have failed to account for nonlinear changes in behavior observed during adolescence, relative to childhood and adulthood. This review provides a biologically plausible conceptualization of the mechanisms underlying these nonlinear changes in behavior, as an imbalance between a heightened sensitivity to motivational cues and immature cognitive control. Recent human imaging and animal studies provide a biological basis for this view, suggesting differential development of subcortical limbic systems relative to top-down control systems during adolescence relative to childhood and adulthood. This work emphasizes the importance of examining transitions into and out of adolescence and highlights emerging avenues of future research on adolescent brain development.