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The social re-orientation of adolescence: a neuroscience perspective on the process and its relation to psychopathology



Background. Many changes in social behavior take place during adolescence. Sexuality and romantic interests emerge during this time, and adolescents spend more time with peers and less time with parents and family. While such changes in social behavior have been well documented in the literature, relatively few neurophysiological explanations for these behavioral changes have been presented.

Method. In this article we selectively review studies documenting (a) the neuronal circuits that are dedicated to the processing of social information; (b) the changes in social behavior that take place during adolescence; (c) developmental alterations in the adolescent brain; and (d) links between the emergence of mood and anxiety disorders in adolescence and changes in brain physiology occurring at that time.

Results. The convergence of evidence from this review indicates a relationship between development of brain physiology and developmental changes in social behavior. Specifically, the surge of gonadal steroids at puberty induces changes within the limbic system that alters the emotional attributions applied to social stimuli while the gradual maturation of the prefrontal cortex enables increasingly complex and controlled responses to social information.

Conclusions. Observed alterations in adolescent social behavior reflect developmental changes in the brain social information processing network. We further speculate that dysregulation of the social information processing network in this critical period may contribute to the onset of mood and anxiety disorders during adolescence.


Corresponding author

Dr Eric E. Nelson, Mood and Anxiety Disorders Program, National Institute of Mental Health, Bldg 106-C, 5413 W. Cedar Lane, Bethesda MD, 20892, USA. (Email:
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Psychological Medicine
  • ISSN: 0033-2917
  • EISSN: 1469-8978
  • URL: /core/journals/psychological-medicine
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