Public Release: 

Adolescent brains show reduced reward anticipation

NIH/National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism

Left: Young adults (age 22-28)
Right: Adolescents (age 12-17)

On February 15, additional photos will be available at

Adolescents show less activity than adults in brain regions that motivate behavior to obtain rewards, according to results from the first magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) study to examine real-time adolescent response to incentives. The study also shows that adolescents and adults exhibit similar brain responses to having obtained rewards. Researchers in the Laboratory of Clinical Studies of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), one of the National Institutes of Health, conducted the study, which appears in the February 25 issue of the Journal of Neuroscience (Volume 24, Number 7).

"Understanding adolescent motivation is critical for understanding why so many young people drink alcohol and engage in associated behaviors such as drinking and driving and sexual risk-taking. That understanding also will be critical for shaping prevention messages that deter such behaviors," said Ting-Kai Li, M.D., Director, National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. "With today's report, researchers in NIAAA's Laboratory of Clinical Studies provide an important part of the picture."

In the MRI study, James Bjork, Ph.D., and others in the laboratory of Daniel Hommer, M.D., scanned the brains of twelve adolescents aged 12 to 17 years and twelve young adults aged 22 to 28 years. While being scanned, the subjects participated in a game-like scenario risking monetary gain or loss. The participants responded to targets on a screen by pressing a button to win or avoid losing 20 cents, $1, or $5.

For both age groups, the researchers found that the anticipation of potential gain activated portions of the ventral striatum, right insula, dorsal thalamus, and dorsal midbrain, with the magnitude of ventral striatum activation sensitive to gain amount. In adolescents, however, the researchers found lower activation of the right ventral striatum centered in the nucleus accumbens, a region at the base of the brain shown by earlier research (see Alcohol Researchers Localize Brain Region That Anticipates Reward August 3, 2001 at News Releases- to be crucial for motivating behavior toward the prospect of rewards.

"Our observations help to resolve a longstanding debate among researchers about whether adolescents experience enhanced reward from risky behaviors--or seek out alcohol and other stimuli because they require enhanced stimulation. They also may help to explain why so many young people have difficulty achieving long-term goals," according to James Bjork, Ph.D., first author on the study.

When the researchers examined brain activity following gain outcomes, they saw that in both adolescents and young adults monetary gain similarly activated a region of the mesial frontal cortex. "These results suggest that adolescents selectively show reduced recruitment of motivational but not consummatory components of reward-directed behavior," state the authors.


For interviews with Drs. Bjork and Hommer, please telephone the NIAAA Press Office: 301/443-0595 and 301/443-3860. The article "Incentive-Elicited Brain Activation in Adolescents: Similarities and Differences from Young Adults" is available after 12:00 AM February 25 at MRI scans also may be accessed at "MRIs Show Adolescent-Adult Differences in Reward Anticipation" at Graphics Gallery-

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, a component of the National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, conducts and supports approximately 90 percent of U.S. research on the causes, consequences, prevention, and treatment of alcohol abuse, alcoholism, and alcohol problems and disseminates research findings to science, practitioner, policy making, and general audiences. Additional alcohol research information and publications are available at

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