The role of the brain’s frontal lobe in adolescent risk-taking behaviour was discussed at the latest instalment of the Grand Rounds at Weill Cornell Medicine-Qatar (WCM-Q).
Dr Omar Mendoza Mahmood, WCM-Q Assistant Professor of Psychology in Clinical Psychiatry, explained how the structure and size of the human brain makes us unique. He said that one of the defining features of human physiology is the giant space above our eyebrows called the frontal lobe. According to Dr Mahmood, no other species has such a large amount of space allocated to this type of structure. So how does it influence our behaviour?
Dr Mahmood, who is also a clinical neuropsychologist at Sidra Medicine, pointed to the much-studied case of Phineas Gage, a railroad worker who suffered a traumatic brain injury in Vermont, USA in 1848 when an explosion drove an iron rod through his skull. Gage survived the accident, but a huge area of his frontal lobe was completely destroyed and his personality changed dramatically. Where he had been conscientious, smart, charismatic and career-focused, he became impulsive, rude, prone to fits of anger and made poor financial and career decisions.
Dr Mahmood said that many have theorised that Gage’s frontal lobe functions were destroyed or impaired and this meant he was unable to function at the level he was before. He was simply no longer the same person.
The interesting thing is, you don’t really need the frontal lobe to survive, you don’t really need it to function as a human being in the very basic sense, but it does impair and take away a lot of your abilities if it is damaged. Some of these abilities are your ability to control your behaviour, make good decisions, and inhibit yourself.’
Given that in the adolescent brain, the frontal lobe is not yet fully developed, researchers have drawn parallels between Gage’s behaviour and the tendency among adolescents to engage in risky, impulsive behaviour with little regard for possible consequences.
Dr Mahmood explained that as young adults gain experience and responsibilities, the frontal lobe becomes more developed and better connected to other parts of the brain. They develop improved ability to respond rationally to situations, and are more likely to think about the consequences of their actions and less likely to take risks.
The lecture was accredited by the Qatar Council for Healthcare Practitioners and by the Accreditation Council for Continuing Medical Education.
For more information about the Grand Rounds at WCM-Q, visit their website at qatar-weill.cornell.edu.