The Effect of Hormones on the Adolescent Brain
As if the massive changes going on in the brain of an adolescence was not hard enough, now add into the mix the very necessary but often fluctuating hormones. The result is a combination that can be volatile. Hormones affect the brain in many different ways and are necessary for life. But, when they are rushing into the brain and body at wildly different levels from day to day, they can throw the brain into a tizzy.
These dramatic changes can help us to understand why a once happy child with a pleasant personality can change into a highly emotional, sometimes unreasonable, teenager. It is of huge benefit to keep in mind the combination of things taking place in their brain. As with other brain personality connection information, these are valuable points to share with your clients.
Hormones are a crucial part of the communication system between bodily functions by continually processing and responding to incoming data. They are the message carriers that are created in several glands in the endocrine system. Hormones aid the brain and nervous system in regulating tasks that the body needs for survival. A simple example of this is melatonin. It is a hormone manufactured in the pineal gland and it will at times act as a neurotransmitter. It tells the brain and body when to sleep. Towards the evening, when it begins getting dark, the pineal gland secretes more melatonin, causing the brain and body to get sleepy. The levels of it in your body will peak about 2 hours into your sleep cycle. The levels will continue to decrease as the sun comes up and your brain and body will begin to wake. Individuals that have incorrect levels of melatonin in their system will not have a good sleep cycle, and never feel right.
As we know, the hormones that most influence the emotional ups and downs of the adolescent are estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone. It is important to understand the effect these have on the body, as well as the effect they have on the brain. Doing so will help you, and those you work with, to be more clear about what is going on in the brain of a teen.
At the onset of puberty, the hypothalamus (the master control for the endocrine system) tells the pituitary to increase hormone production in the body. These will include estrogen, progesterone, testosterone, and other growth hormones. Adolescent boys will experience huge changes in their body based on the increase in testosterone. In any given day during puberty they will have five to seven surges of this hormone in their system. The presence of testosterone at the end of puberty will reach up to 1000% of that at the beginning, and twenty times as much as girls at similar age.
The effect of testosterone on the brain is significant; especially its strong effect on the amygdala. The amygdala has receptors specifically for testosterone. The result is that, as the surges of this hormone take place every day in the body of the adolescent boy, the amygdala is very over-stimulated. This over-stimulation can result in strong feelings of anger, aggression, sexual interest, dominance and competition; often not understood by the boy himself. This may lean him towards outbursts of anger and physical aggression. It is wise to keep this in mind when dealing with the adolescent boy.
According to David Walsh, in his book Why Do They Act That Way?, “The everyday changes in a young teen’s behavior are dramatic. Going into an eight-year-old boy’s room is no big deal, but if you tread a square inch of carpet in the room of a fourteen-year-old boy, you are likely to hear some version of ‘Get out of my room!’ That territoriality comes from testosterones effect on the amygdala.” It is no wonder, then, why there is often unexplained aggression displayed by the adolescent male.
Now for our charming, fun, and cheerful little girls who are hit with increases in estrogen and progesterone. In the brain, it is the hippocampus that has the additional receptors for estrogen. Remember, this is the memory center in the brain. This may give the girls an advantage in memory exercises or skills over the boys.
Estrogen and progesterone also have a powerful influence over certain neurotransmitters. Three neurotransmitters that are active during this time of life are norepinephrine, dopamine, and serotonin. It is important to note that these neurotransmitters have a strong influence in our moods. The rise and fall of these hormones in turn create a rise and fall of the neurotransmitters. The affect this all has on the brain of the pubescent girl can influence her reaction to things like stress, sex drive, and appetite. When you put two and two together you see why girls going through puberty will be prone to dramatic mood swings. As with testosterone in boys, there are surges of hormone production in the girl’s body that may take years to come into balanced regulation.
Again, let’s start to combine some of the brain personality connection facets. Remember that the female brain is a more talkative brain; they have the potential for additional speech centers and more neural connections from the right to left side of the brain. Now, what happens when you add in the influence that the dominant female hormones have on neurotransmitters? When these hormones are surging, the neurotransmitter dopamine (the feel good transmitter) may get low, causing depression. As the adolescent girl starts talking to herself about her feelings, she can actually talk herself down because the neurotransmitters aren’t in balance. The result: a deep depression. Most often these mode swings will balance out as the brain matures but, if they don’t, more professional help may be needed. If in doubt, by all means make the call and get connected with a practitioner that specializes in depression.
The Maturing Sexual Brain
As if all of the other brain development that we have discussed wasn’t hard enough on the adolescent, going through the sexual changes in the body and brain add to the emotional powder keg. The hormones begin to make their bodies mature with obvious physical changes, but the brain is not quite ready to handle the attention these changes cause.
For the boy, rapid development in the hypothalamus nucleus (one of the portions of the brain directly related to sexual behavior) can cause an influx of sexual thoughts. Next, research has found that dopamine (the “feel good” neurotransmitter) is linked to the sex drive in boys and girls. Add to this the surges in testosterone and… well, need I say more.
The development of the hypothalamus will also result in sexual awakening for girls. Testosterone is not only found in the male of the species but in the females as well. This hormone is very closely connected to sex drive. Of course, the levels in boys and men are much higher than in girls and women. However, it will also have a connection to the developing sexual urges in girls.
The same as adults, teen girls will tend to be more relational as these feeling awaken within them. Remember, they tend to have more ease in accessing the right, emotional side of the brain when considering situations; therefore, their goals will be more towards establishing romance. Boys, on the other hand, have their extra amygdala receptors for testosterone, which causes them to be more territorial in nature, and their brain structure is more single-thought focused. This means that, in general, boys will tend to see the girl as more of a conquest or territorial possession.
It is interesting to look at the results of brain scans of young people taken while they are looking at pictures of their boyfriends/girlfriends. One such study, conducted at the University College in London, helped us to see what was going on inside of the brain. There were four main areas of the brain that were very active; two in the cortex and two in the deeper emotional portions of the brain. The PFC was not active at all. It is interesting to note that these areas are not the same as the areas that light up during sexual activity. Showing that romantic love is based on emotion rather than reasoning thought. Therefore, trying to reason with a young person when they feel that they have fallen in love with their true soulmate is really not going to be very effective.
Another thing to keep in mind is something that Dr. Peele, in his book ‘Love and Addiction’ brought out. The brain activity of a person in love is very similar to that of a person under the influence of cocaine. This can mean that the act of falling in love can, for some, become as addictive as a drug. A cocaine high releases dopamine that makes you feel good, norepinephrine causing quick reactions, and decreases serotonin which is key in stabilizing moods. All of these are working when romantic love is in play. 
Now, imagine that all of this is taking place in the not-quite-finished brain of the adolescent; the results can be a little chaotic. Again, it will benefit all who are parents or counselors to take all of this into consideration when dealing with or interacting with teens. This one unit can lead to a series of tele-classes or webinars, with the target market of parents and educators. Keeping the brain in mind, below are some tips for dealing with adolescents that you can use to help guide your clients or individuals that you work with.
- Act as a surrogate prefrontal cortex. When it comes to reasoning activities and consequences for ones actions, you may need to spell it out for them, in a calm manner. For example: instead of saying “If you don’t do good on your schoolwork you will not be able to get into a good college and, in turn, fail to find a well-paying job.” You might ask: “What would you love to do as a career?” allowing for answer and continuing, “That’s great! I wonder what type of specialized classes you might need.” Possibly list a few, and then reason for them, “So it might really help if you aced this math class, so that it would be easier for you to get into that career.” You have not TOLD them to do their homework, focus on grades, or go study. You have walked them through the reasoning process to help them see the need to pay attention now, so that they can reach their long term goals.
- Be clear about the message you want to convey. Remember, they will often misread the emotion behind what you say, so use wisdom and tact to deliver messages in a manner that will be clear and understandable. Starting conversations off with positive emotional reinforcement will set the right emotional tone from the beginning, even if counsel is going to be given. You might try something like: “I am so impressed with the way you are handling all of this schoolwork. You seem to have so much more to juggle than I did at your age. I do need to make sure that you pay attention to your responsibilities here at home. The garbage is often forgotten. Maybe it would help if you just take it out every day as soon as you get home; then it’s done, taken care of, and out of the way.”
- Be specific about your expectations or rules. Avoid allowing assumptions to be made. Without the PFC being fully ready for action, they may have a hard time connecting the dots or reading any general statements. If you use generalities like, “Be nice to your brother.” That leaves too much room for interpretation. It needs to be specific, for example: “There will be consequences for hitting or yelling.” Instead of saying, “Respect your sister’s privacy,” you might say: “Unless you ask first and she says ‘Okay,’ stay out of your sister’s room and leave her phone/tablet/gadget alone.” Also, note: Make sure that you frame any instructions in the positive; the brain ignores the negative. Therefore, as far as your brain is concerned, don’t fall=fall.
- Engage YOUR prefrontal cortex before responding. Often, when frustration has reached its peak in dealing with the emotional and often irrational adolescent, the adults under stress will also fail to use their reasoning PFC. It is important that you stop, take a few breaths, and think about all the information on the adolescent brain you have learned. This will help you to formulate responses and guidelines that are more understandable and process better in their brains. The result will be greater peace and harmony in the family, or in any situation where you are interacting with an adolescent.
- Encourage activities that will help the adolescent get through this difficult time. There are activities that can help balance out the changes that are rapidly fluctuating. Some of them are:
- Get adequate sleep! Sleep is a crucial time for the brain to rebuild and replenish cells. It may also allow the brain to reinforce connections made during the waking hours. According to studies, the adolescent brain needs between nine to ten hours of sleep every day. Also, the circadian rhythm in the teen brain gets messed up when the hormones and neurotransmitters are fluctuating like crazy. The normal sleep pattern of the brain gets messed up and the signals go out at a later time to shut the brain down. So, if the brain won’t shut down until midnight that means that it won’t be ready for work again until 9 AM the next day. This is something high schools should take into consideration. Sleep deprivation can cause a whole host of serious problems. It can impair memory, increase cortisol production in the body, decrease reflex responses, and intensify mood swings.
- Encourage physical activity. Not only is physical activity important for the health of the brain and body, it increases endorphins in the brain. Endorphins are the neurotransmitters that are directly connected to happiness and a general good mood.
- Avoid their exposure to alcohol. While this seems to be a silly point to bring out, the effect of alcohol on the teen brain is more devastating than an adults. Some families have a more relaxed policy when it comes to what they may describe as moderate use. Much like the brain of a fetus, the adolescent brain is going through marked development which makes it sensitive to introduction of foreign substances. Alcohol, like other drugs, interferes with neurotransmitter activity. Remember, these are the message caring agents from cell to cell. Alcohol stimulates the release of dopamine. When it is artificially encouraged to be released it begins to lose its ability to be released naturally. So, the brain stops producing normal levels of dopamine on its own and it starts to rely on the foreign substance to do the job. It also interferes with the encoding of new memories. The neurotransmitter glutamate is needed to help neurons wire together, helping them to fire together in the future and recall information learned. Without glutamate the neurons that are firing will not wire together, making it difficult to form memories. While this happens in the brains of young and old alike, the adolescent brain is particularly susceptible to glutamate interference. Their brains are going through that important blossoming and pruning cycle. Neurons that are not wiring to others will be pruned out and so will the pathways for learning and memory that they should have created, if the glutamate levels were correct.
- If at all possible, discourage smoking. Like alcohol consumption, the adolescent brain is impacted more severely than an adult brain. Effecting somewhere in the neighborhood of two dozen neurotransmitters, nicotine actually creates for itself a greater number of receptors in the brain. Like alcohol, it also falsely encourages the production of dopamine. Because the brain is still figuring itself out, it is not able to naturally achieve a balanced production of neurotransmitters as it matures. It will become dependent on the artificial means that nicotine supplies, making it even easier for the adolescent to become addicted and even harder for them to break that addiction.  
This concludes the unit on the brain of a child. As with all of the other brain personality connections, this is vital for healthy relationships in our lives. While it may not appeal to your business clients, it will have a profound effect on any clients that you coach as a life or relationship coach; not to mention the improvement in your personal understanding of adolescents everywhere.
 It is interesting to note that in some cases a hormone can act as a neurotransmitter in one region of the brain while serving as a hormone elsewhere. For example, vasopressin and oxytocin, two peptide hormones that are released into the circulation system from the posterior pituitary, also function as neurotransmitters at a number of central synapses. A number of other peptides also serve as both hormones and neurotransmitters. This complex interaction between the nervous system and hormones is called the neuroendocrine system.
 Michael Gurian, A Fine Young Man-New York: Teacher/Putnam, 1999 page 32
 Michael Gurian, The Wonder of Girls, New York: Pocket Books, 2002, page 78-82
 Helen Fisher, The Anatomy of Love. New York Ballantine, 1994, page 53
 Andreas Bartels and Semir Zeki: A. Bartels and S Zeki, The Neural Bases of Romantic Love, NeuroReport 11 (2000) page 3829-34
 Dr. Stanton Peele, Love and Addiction (New York: Signet,, 1981)
 Dr. Helen Fisher, The Science of Love http://www.bbc.co.uk/print/science/hottopics/love/print.shtml
 Per Mary Carskadon, in a Brown University study on adolescents and sleep.
 P. Rohde, “Natural Course of Alcohol Use Disorders from Adolescents to Young Adulthood.” Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry
 T. Slotkin, “Nicotine and the Adolescent Brain: Insights from an Animal Model” Neurotoxicology and Teratology 24 (2002) pgs 369-384
 H.D. Mansvelder, J. R. Keath, and D. S. McGehee, “Synaptic Mechanisms Underlie Nicotine-induced Excitability of Brain Reward Areas.” Neuron 27 (2002) pgs 349-57