Sleeping Teens’ Brains Show Signs of Maturity

March 30, 2009 11:30 AM
by Rachel Balik
A new study shows that teenage brains are less active during sleep than younger children’s brains, suggesting that unnecessary childhood mental connections are purged during adolescence.

Teenagers “Prune” Their Brains of Childish Things

Recent research indicates that children’s brain activity during sleep slows as they enter adolescence. Scientists believe that this is the result of a process called “synaptic pruning,” in which teenagers’ brains rid themselves of mental connections from childhood that will no longer serve them as adults. Scientists at the University of California, Davis, studied the brainwaves of children under 11-years-old and found no change in brain activity during sleep. But after age 11, they recorded a drop of at least 60 percent in two brain wave frequencies, LiveScience reports.  Physiologist Ian Campbell explained that during childhood, it is easier for things to be “moved around” because there are more connections. This means that children can recover more easily from brain damage and have an easier time learning new languages than adults do. But the pruning is needed so that the brain can have more complex, adult thoughts.

Dr. Sarah-Jayne Blackmore, a research fellow at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London, explains that, “It’s like pruning a rose bush. You don’t want too many branches, because then no one branch can grow really strong.” The London Times reports that while the brain experiences significant growth in early childhood years, as children get older, some of those synapses have to go away so that others can develop, accounting for the complex thoughts described by Dr. Campbell.
The new research may lead to greater understanding about which environmental factors influence brain development, such as smoking cigarettes and peer pressure. Scientists believe that when more research in this area is completed, it will help determine the best ways to teach adolescents, both in school and in social situations. More data on brain development may also explain why teens are often moody or rebellious during adolescence.

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Related Topic: Sleep helps teens learn better

Recent studies suggest that more sleep may be a good way to help teen learning. After teens in a poll reported that starting school at 7:30 am was infringing on their sleep hours, 19 states have decided to start certain schools later in the day, and 17 others are considering the practice. Not only do experts anticipate that children will learn better, but they think that students will get in fewer car accidents and be less depressed.

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