New understanding of adolescent brain development: relevance to transitional healthcare for young people with long term conditions

Arch Dis Child. 2013 Nov;98(11):902-7. doi: 10.1136/archdischild-2013-303945. Epub 2013 Aug 28.


Whether or not adolescence should be treated as a special period, there is now no doubt that the brain changes much during adolescence. From an evolutionary perspective, the idea of an under developed brain which is not fit for purpose until adulthood is illogical. Rather, the adolescent brain is likely to support the challenges specific to that period of life. New imaging techniques show striking changes in white and grey matter between 11 and 25 years of age, with increased connectivity between brain regions, and increased dopaminergic activity in the pre-frontal cortices, striatum and limbic system and the pathways linking them. The brain is dynamic, with some areas developing faster and becoming more dominant until other areas catch up. Plausible mechanisms link these changes to cognitive and behavioural features of adolescence. The changing brain may lead to abrupt behavioural change with attendant risks, but such a brain is flexible and can respond quickly and imaginatively. Society allows adolescent exuberance and creativity to be bounded and explored in relative safety. In healthcare settings these changes are especially relevant to young people with long term conditions as they move to young adult life; such young people need to learn to manage their health conditions with the support of their healthcare providers.

Keywords: Adolescent Health; Neurodevelopment; Transition.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adolescent Behavior / physiology
  • Adolescent Development / physiology*
  • Adolescent Health Services / organization & administration
  • Aging / physiology
  • Aging / psychology
  • Brain / growth & development*
  • Humans
  • Transition to Adult Care / organization & administration*