Teenage rebellion might be caused by abnormal brain development, study suggests

Researchers in the United Kingdom found a link between behavioral disorders in adolescents and the thickness of the brain's outer layer, breaking down misconceptions that severe antisocial behavior and aggression are simply just forms of teenage rebellion.

The study, which provided some of the strongest evidence to date that abnormal brain development contributes to antisocial behavior in childhood or teenage years, was led by Graeme Fairchild, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Southampton.

Fairchild and his team scanned the brains of 58 males aged 16 to 21, who were diagnosed with conduct disorder and 25 healthy males of the same age to serve as controls, according to the study. They used MRI to measure the thickness of 68 different parts of the outer layers of individuals’ brains, parts that play roles in awareness, perception, attention, memory and language. They also compared the outer layer to different regions of the cortex.

“Recently, there has been increasing interest in applying structural covariance methods to investigate psychiatric disorders with putative neurodevelopmental origins, such as autism and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder,” the researchers wrote. “We employed structural covariance methods based on cortical thickness data to compare youths with conduct disorder.”

Their findings showed that different parts of the cortex were similar to other parts of it in terms of thickness in teenagers who developed behavioral problems early in life compared to the control patients, suggesting that brain development proceeds more evenly in children who had behavior problems early in their life.

This research paves the way for new studies to be conducted in which brain development of individuals is tracked over time, investigating whether an individual’s behavior improves if their brain development normalizes.

Additionally, Fairchild said in the study that the research could serve as the foundation for exploring whether children develop these specific brain development issues through environmental factors such as abuse and neglect or whether there are genetic factors that contribute to abnormal brain development.