Date published: 5/3/2019

The goal of my laboratory is to understand how a confluence of developmental events, including puberty, brain development, and social changes, influence changes in behavior as children become adolescents.

In the media and anecdotally, adolescents are often caricatured negatively as individuals who have little perspective-taking skills, poor self-control and exaggerated emotions.  Fortunately, scientists are increasingly changing this narrative through empirical research showing that the normal changes in the adolescent brain are adaptive for the individual and beneficial for society.  Adolescents are in a distinct developmental stage that facilitates the adaptive transition from a state of dependence on caregivers to one of relative independence.

At no other time in life is there greater intrinsic motivation to explore new experiences than during adolescence.  Youth are often at the forefront of new ideas, impassioned defenders of ideals and influential leaders. My lab has characterized naturally-occurring changes in the adolescent brain that explain this phenomenon.  Deep inside our brain is a region called the striatum.  When we are in a novel situation, or a rewarding one, or one that requires us to learn new information, the striatum is paying attention.  It helps trigger feelings of arousal that draws our attention to the stimulus or events at hand.  The striatum is unique in that its response to novelty or reward or learning changes across adolescence: the adolescent striatum is more active than it is at any other time of life. This means that adolescents find the same stimulus or event more “exciting” than do older or younger individuals.  How does this translate into behavior?  This sensitivity in the striatum is thought to account for why adolescents are more interested in thrills, risk-taking and new friends than adults.  

In the lab we also study plasticity in the adolescent brain more broadly. The brain is remarkably malleable. In response to new experiences, social interactions, and learning opportunities, the brain reshapes and refines itself adaptively to fit the needs of the individual. This phenomenon is particularly true during periods of rapid development like adolescence. Although plasticity during this window renders the adolescent more vulnerable to negative influence, it also makes adolescence an ideal time to positively influence or redirect problem behaviors.  

Adolescent brain research has offered an explanation of adolescent behavior relevant for parents, society, and policymakers. As the science continues to evolve, it will advance understanding of adolescent potential and individual variation to further generate developmentally appropriate expectations, policies, and sanctions.

I was born and raised in Santa Barbara, California, and then majored in Neuroscience at Barnard College, Columbia University in New York City. After college, I stayed in NYC to get my PhD in Neuroscience at Cornell University.  I conducted my postdoctoral research at UCLA before joining the Psychology Department as a faculty member in 2006.