Adolescence is a time of increasing emotional arousal, sensation-seeking and risk-taking, especially in the context of peers. Recent neuroscientific studies have pinpointed to the role of the ventral striatum as a brain region which is particularly sensitive to reward, and to 'social brain' regions, such as the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), the precuneus, and the temporal parietal junction, as being particularly responsive to social contexts. However, no study to date has examined adolescents' sensitivity to reward across different social contexts. In this study we examined 249 participants between the ages 8 and 25, on a monetary reward-processing task. Participants could win or lose money for themselves, their best friend and a disliked peer. Winning for self resulted in a mid- to late adolescent specific peak in neural activation in the ventral striatum, whereas winning for a disliked peer resulted in a mid- to late adolescent specific peak in the mPFC. Our findings reveal that ventral striatum and mPFC hypersensitivity in adolescence is dependent on social context. Taken together, these results suggest that increased risk-taking and sensation seeking observed in adolescence might not be purely related to hyperactivity of the ventral striatum, but that these behaviors are probably strongly related to the social context in which they occur.
Keywords: Adolescence; Friendship; Medial prefrontal cortex; Ventral striatum; fMRI.
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