Learning May Be Tougher for the Teen Brain

By Randy Dotinga
HealthDay Reporter

THURSDAY, March 18 (HealthDay News) -- When kids hit adolescence, their learning ability hits the skids, research suggests. The same thing happens to mice, and now scientists think they've gained new insight into why.

Parts of the brain that deal with learning appear to be inhibited during puberty, at least in mice. But in a study published March 19 in the journal Science, researchers report that they helped teenaged mice think better by manipulating their genes.

It's too early to tell if this finding will mean anything for human teens, but it could eventually help scientists "get a better grip on individuals who have problems with learning in adolescence," said study co-author Sheryl Smith, a professor in the department of physiology and pharmacology at State University of New York Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn.

According to Smith, changes at puberty make it harder to learn second languages and activities that involve so-called spatial learning, like playing video games. It may also take longer to learn to play music and master sports like skiing, she said.

Of course, plenty of distractions -- such as thinking about sex -- may also keep teenagers from focusing on learning new things, Smith acknowledged.

It's possible that "they're just being difficult, it's their hormones, or they're doing it on purpose," she said. "There are so many things going on in humans that we wanted to break it down in a mouse study where we could look at what's going on in the brain."

In their study, Smith and colleagues tested the learning skills of mice of various ages. They put them on a moving platform and made them learn how to use clues around them to avoid getting mild shocks from one platform section.

It took longer for the adolescent mice to learn how to avoid the shocks than the younger ones, Smith said. The key may be a receptor that processes a neurotransmitter that appears to be active during puberty.

But something called a stress steroid appears to boost learning by dampening the effects of the receptor.

In the big picture, "it's useful to understand that there are brain mechanisms that are specific to learning that are changing at puberty and making it hard to learn certain things," Smith said.

Ultimately, she said, new strategies could be tried in middle school, and scientists could develop drugs to manipulate how easily kids learn.

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SOURCES: Sheryl Smith, Ph.D., professor, department of physiology and pharmacology, State University of New York Downstate Medical Center, New York City; March 19, 2010, Science