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Impulsive behavior gets kids in trouble, but science is honing in on the problem

“Teenagers are often impulsive.” That’s the opening sentence of a new scientific paper. Raise your hand if you’re a parent of an adolescent and agree.

Impulsivity is a major focus on researchers studing the brain and human behavior because being overly impulsive or a risk-taker or dare-devil is linked to more problems in life. Kids who can’t seem to control their impulses make bad decisions: like swallowing a mysterious pill someone brought to school or riding on a skateboard attached to a car. They are driven by a need for instant gratification and fail to consider the long-term consequences of their actions.

Impulsivity is part of adolescence, but some people are clearly born with a deep lack of self-control. In a new study published Monday, researchers have identified a part of the brain that seems involved in impulsivity. The scientists, led by a team from Washington University in St. Louis, conducted functional MRI brain scans on 100 juvenile offenders ages 7 to 31. (Crime is another consequence of impulsiveness in youth.) They found that in impulsive young people, activity in motor planning regions of the brain correlated with activity in a part of the brain involved in spotaneous or unplanned thought. Moreover, extremely impulsive people seemed to have delayed brain development in those regions.

Understanding impulsivity could lead to improved tactics to help kids who get into trouble. Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, conduct disorder and antisocial personality disorder are all disorders in which impulsivity plays a major role. It’s possible, the authors wrote, that specific treatments or therapies could address the brain flaws that trigger impulsivity or speed up the brain’s maturation process to tame impulsive behavior.

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The study appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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