Hormonal Anomolies Bring on Adolescent Moodswings
> 3/12/2007 12:27:13 PM

Many hold the longstanding belief in a direct connection between internal chemical changes and the fluctuating emotional peaks and valleys of adolescence. But researchers now find that one particular hormone that works as a natural sedative to relieve tension in anxious adults performs the opposite function in the body of adolescent mice, only intensifying their preexisting stresses. This neural element, known as THP or allopregnanolone, is released by the body several moments after a stressful event in order to temper the individual's reaction and allow for a more considered (and probably more successful) response. It floods the brain, attaching itself to GABA receptors. During adolescence, however, the bodies of young mice produce a particularly large quantity of a variable receptor that responds in the opposite way when encountering the THP: the receptor compliments the stress hormone rather than cancelling it out. Researchers placed rats in small plastic containers to induce a sense of claustrophobia, measuring their brains' reactions and finding that, where adults fell into a state of relative calm after several minutes in the containers, younger mice grew more agitated.

These chemical interactions, which change as the brain matures, may very well explain the sometimes counterintuitive behaviors of young people who move very quickly between emotional extremes or display unpredictable overreactions to any number of outside events, from social anxieties to irregular sleep and dietary patterns. Some researchers surmise that this emotional instability actually makes developing mice (and people) more cautious, critical of others and less likely to fall into easy deceptions. Teens, they say, are very suspicious, often with good reason. And yet, the same changes also considerably diminish their ability to read emotional cues from the gestures and faces of others, leaving young people less able to demonstrate empathy or appreciate the sensititve nature of certain social situations. They then behave more impulsively and, in quite a few cases, are more likely to get into trouble. Such are the ever-present contradictions of adolescence.

The study also contributes
to the growing consensus that the brain, in contrast to previously held beliefs, has not largely completed its maturation process by the late teen years, as its makeup and functions continue to change dramatically well into adulthood. The "growing pains" of youth are accurately described, and, while one cannot entirely dismiss the troublesome behaviors of some teens as unfortunate byproducts of the maturation process, some of the related changes should be treated with understanding rather than confrontation. Fits of irrational anger, crying and self-pity are to be expected and can hopefully be moderated by a supportive environment and healthy lifestyle. In too many cases, the unresolved frustrations of the age lead adolescents into destructive situations, and by better understanding the chemistry behind these sea changes, we should be able to counter them with therapy or at least create cirumstances more conducive to their peaceful resolution.

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