Adolescent development encompasses an ostensible paradox in threat processing. Risk taking increases dramatically after the onset of puberty, contributing to a 200% increase in mortality. Yet, pubertal maturation is associated with increased reactivity in threat-avoidance systems. In the first part of this paper we propose a heuristic model of adolescent affective development that may help to reconcile aspects of this paradox, which focuses on hypothesized pubertal increases in the capacity to experience (some) fear-evoking experiences as an exciting thrill. In the second part of this paper, we test key features of this model by examining brain activation to threat cues in a longitudinal study that disentangled pubertal and age effects. Pubertal increases in testosterone predicted increased activation to threat cues, not only in regions associated with threat avoidance (i.e., amygdala), but also regions associated with reward pursuit (i.e., nucleus accumbens). These findings are consistent with our hypothesis that puberty is associated with a maturational shift toward more complex processing of threat cues--which may contribute to adolescent tendencies to explore and enjoy some types of risky experiences.
Keywords: Adolescence; Amygdala; Anxiety; Nucleus accumbens; Puberty; Reward; Risk taking; Testosterone; Threat.
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