- The Washington Times - Monday, February 6, 2006

Grown up at 18? Think again.

Parents longing for their child to turn 18 and reach the calm, collected shore of adulthood may be in for a long wait. Dartmouth University researchers have found the human brain continues to change significantly in the college years and may not take adult characteristics until 25 or so.

“When do we reach adulthood? It might be much later than we traditionally think,” said graduate student Craig Bennett of the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, co-author of the study released yesterday.

“The brain of an 18-year-old college freshman is still far from resembling the brain of someone in their mid-20s,” he said.

In American culture, 18 often is considered the magic number. On reaching their 18th birthday, a teen can vote, own a firearm or property, marry without parental consent, obtain an abortion, serve on a jury, start a business, donate their body to science and be “tried as adults” in court.

But is that brain mature in adult terms? With psychologist Abigail Baird, Mr. Bennett found the collegiate brain was still a work in progress.

Using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), the pair scanned the brains of 19 university freshmen, with repeat scans made at the end of the school term. The researchers found pronounced anatomical changes in regions of the brain governing emotions and understanding, typically used for “navigating the world.”

They also compared the brain scans of the 18-year-olds with those of another test group, ages 25 to 35.

“The results suggest that significant age-related changes in brain structure continue after the age of 18 and may represent dynamic changes related to new environmental challenges,” the study stated.

It was funded by a grant from the National Institute of Child Health and Development and will be published later this month in Human Brain Mapping, a health journal.

Research has uncovered reassuring revelations about the mature brain as well, confirming that the proverbial old dog can learn new tricks.

When the going gets tough, older adult brains get going, according to research released in November by University of Michigan psychologist Cindy Lustig. Using MRIs, she found that folks older than 65 unexpectedly tap into certain brain resources when the heat is on.

“Older adults’ brains can indeed rise to the challenge,” Ms. Lustig said.

Earlier research often focused on decreased mental agility. More recent studies found that seniors activated reasoning abilities just like younger counterparts during a daunting task and even tapped into additional brain regions to help their performance.

“This is good news,” Ms. Lustig said. “Previously, we thought that the elderly couldn’t do this type of thing as well. In our study, we found they are activating these brain areas — and quite a bit.”


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