Teens’ self-consciousness linked to the medial prefrontal cortex

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Prefrontal cortex by National Institute of Mental HealthNew research shows that teenagers’ heightened self-consciousness is linked with specific physiological and brain responses.

The study, published online June 26 in Psychological Science, found an area of the brain known as the medial prefrontal cortex showed different levels of reactivity to social evaluation among children, adolescents, and young adults.

“This study has identified adolescence as a unique period of the lifespan in which self-conscious emotion, physiological reactivity, and activity in the medial prefrontal cortex converge and peak in reactivity when people believe they are being evaluated,” lead researcher Leah Somerville of Harvard University told PsyPost. “Not only does this work demonstrate that even subtle evaluative contexts can reveal these effects, it also demonstrates that brain regions important in integrating social cognition, emotional valuation, and motivated behavior are uniquely engaged during adolescence.”

“This is important because in addition to the numerous sociocultural changes that adolescents experience, shifts in physiological and brain function during adolescence might also contribute to adolescents’ sensitivity to social evaluation.”

The researchers had 69 participants, ranging in age from 8 to almost 23 years old, come to the lab and complete measures that gauged emotional, physiological, and neural responses to social evaluation.

Somerville and her colleagues told the participants that they would be testing a new video camera embedded in the head coil of a functional MRI scanner. The participants watched a screen indicating whether the camera was “off,” “warming up,” or “on”, and were told that a same-sex peer of about the same age would be watching the video feed and would be able to see them when the camera was on. In reality, there was no camera in the MRI machine.

The researchers found that being watched by a peer elicited higher levels of self-conscious emotion in adolescents compared to children, while self-conscious emotion appeared to have stabilized in young adults. This emotional response was mirrored by the reactivity of the medial prefrontal cortex.

“One of the key findings in this study was that while adolescents were being watched by a peer, they demonstrated greater functional connectivity between brain activity in the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC) and the striatum compared to children and to a lesser extent, adults as well,” Somerville explained to PsyPost. “Given the role of the striatum in mediating motivated behavior and actions, we speculate that MPFC-striatum connectivity could provide a route by which social evaluative contexts influence motivated behavior. This would provide a neurobiological mechanism for adolescents’ tendency to act riskier in social contexts. We are launching a series of studies aimed at testing this hypothesis.”

The study was co-authored by B.J. Casey, Rebecca M. Jones, Erika J. Ruberry, and Jonathan P. Dyke of Weill Cornell Medical College and Gary Glover of Stanford University.