Wednesday, February 01, 2006

How The Brain Truly Develops

Shattering assumptions held for generations about the adolescent mind, recent brain research is fueling the battle over the mental health of teens, the rights of a parent, and the effectiveness of treatments. This research is forcing scientists to redraw the line between normal teen behavior and severe mental illness, still while questioning how does the brain truly develop.
Researchers now believe that a teens brain is not merely awash in hormones, but it is also in the middle of a overhaul. Scientists now believe that these transitions are so significant, that they may unlock the many mysteries of mental illness, including why some teens commit suicide, why some hurt their classmates and loved ones, or why some have crippling mental disorders that don’t emerge until later in life. Behavior that may seem normal in a teen, might be called pathological in a 30 year old. The question then becomes where do you draw the line? What’s typical in a teen and what’s not? Have millions of children been wrongly medicated to control their behavior?
The old way of thinking was that an adolescent’s brain was fully formed. It needed only facts, figures, and experiences to fill it to an adult mind. But at the same time many didn’t believe that young people were even capable of developing a mental illness.
But now, new research shows that a teens brain is in transition with a volatile and vulnerable composition. Scientists say that it’s not even clear that the brain is ever finished developing. They say the teens brain isn’t adult like until the early 20’s. They say that if a teenager acts young and stupid, it may be because areas that dampen impulsivity and govern rational thought are among the last to mature. Researchers believe that if a teens brain fails to reinvent itself as an adult brain, teens are vulnerable to developing mental illness.
Many now believe that several severe mental illnesses have roots in the development of the teen brain, even if symptoms aren’t seen until years or decades later. What has many concerned is the possibility that parents, teachers or others are mistaking early warning signs as typical teen behavior? Treating the disorders early could stop the worst manifestations of the disease. This would give young adults a better chance at a productive life. For example, if an adult loses a year of function due to depression, they usually get back close to where they were. But if a child loses a year, it can be very hard for him/her to catch up again in terms of development.
But the ethical issue of determining when and how to respond to adolescent warning signs could have explosive implications. Some parents fear that a child they view as normal may be incorrectly labeled as mentally ill. There is also much skepticism over whether mental illness in an adolescent can be accurately diagnosed or even treated. These doubts increase as more children are put on medication for behavior problems. Some say the system tolerates a hasty diagnoses, often by a physician who has no mental health expertise.
The stigma that accompanies mental health treatment is partly due to people who have doubts about various disorders even existing. What must be done is to elevate the status of mental health by boosting public confidence in accurately diagnosing and the efficacy of treatment. Right now family doctors and pediatricians are doing most of the diagnosing and medicating in office visits lasting only 15-30 minutes.
The field of adolescent mental health suffers from credibility. Much skepticism is from the fact that doctors have no blood tests, brain scans, or chemical analysis to base their conclusions. Psychologists still rely on interviews and observations. Parents often fear that their child might be falsely labeled. There is also fear from many that too many children are being medicated for problems such as ADD.

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