Puberty is an awkward time; cue cracking voices, bodily changes, hair growth, and raging hormones. You’re self-conscience of sudden, apparent changes and worry about fitting in. You worry about relating to your peers, you’re aware of what people say, as you try to come up with explanations for everything. Your only resources for an explanation about these uncomfortable changes are your parents, your teachers, and maybe even your peers or the internet.
Now add mental health.
Biologically, puberty begins with the brain signaling the secretion of particular hormones into the body; this process heavily involves parts of the brain called the hypothalamus and the pituitary glands. The grey matter in the brain, the thin outer layer of the cortex where thought and memory are based, increases and decreases throughout this adolescent age. This process essentially pushes the maturation process in adolescents from the brain, down to the body.
Stanford School of Medicine conducted research in a group of 59 adolescents aged 9-17. Thirty individuals, 14 girls and 16 boys, in the group had suffered at least one episode of severe trauma with the majority of the 30 experiencing two or more episodes, or had been exposed to chronic trauma. Within the group of adolescents exposed to trauma, researchers saw differences in a portion of the brain called the insular cortex, or insula.
The insula contributes to conscious experiences of emotions; and in recognizing emotional experience. Studies have shown that the activation in the insula, specifically anterior regions, is affected. The insula plays a part in processing emotional experience, along with contextual background information received from prefrontal regions of the brain. The insula also plays a role in regulating cognitive processes and behavior, and “simulated” emotional experience, including empathy; which plays a role in social learning.
The study revealed no difference in brain structure of the control group. However, differences in brain structure amongst traumatized boys and girls showed differences in the anterior circular sacs of the insula. In boys, this portion of the brain had larger volume and surface area in the group of traumatized boys than their counterpart in the control group. The group of girls who had experienced trauma had an insula with smaller volume and surface area.
This means the insula, which normally increasing volume over the span of puberty into adulthood, does not grow in the normal manner in adolescent girls who have experienced trauma compared to the consistently increasing manner in adolescent girls who have not experienced trauma. This finding shows that traumatic stress, or chronic high levels of stress, may contribute to early puberty in girls.
The problem with the early onset of puberty lies at the increased risk for adolescents, especially girls. Globally, the average age of a girl’s first period has decreased from 16 to 13 years old in the past century. This is difficult for us to compare to adolescent boys as there is not as clear a marker of puberty, but studies have still suggested that boys are also developing earlier than in past generations.
Girls who mature early are at increased risk for depressive disorders, eating disorders, disruptive behavior disorders, substance abuse, and early sexual behavior. In boys, early maturation has been linked to anxiety problems, negative self-image, stress, and externalizing symptoms (ie, tobacco usage) rather than “full-fledged” disorders. Of all disorders, the most apparent and clear, the most consistent link is between early puberty and depression.
The lead Stanford Medicine study author Dr. Megan Klabunde says ultimately that the findings of this research will be important to professions who work with traumatized youth. “By better understanding sex differences in the region of the brain involved in emotion processing, clinicians and scientists may be able to develop sex-specific trauma and emotion deregulation treatments” (Digitale. 2016)
Digitale, E. (2016, November 11). Traumatic Stress Changes Brains of Boys, Girls Differently. Retrieved from https://med.stanford.edu/news/all-news/2016/11/traumatic-stress-changes-brains-of-boys-girls-differently.html
Rudolph, K. D., Troop-Gordon, W., Lambert, S. F., & Natsuaki, M. N. (2014). Long-term consequences of pubertal timing for youth depression: Identifying personal and contextual pathways of risk. Development and Psychopathology, 26, 1423–1444.
The Teen Brain: Still Under Construction. (2011). Retrieved from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/the-teen-brain-still-under-construction/index.shtml
Weir, K. (2016, March). The Risks Of Earlier Puberty. The Risks of Earlier Puberty, 47, 40. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/monitor/2016/03/puberty.aspx