Brain research shows possibilities for second chances

By Jennifer Brookland

September 17, 2013


By the time Crystal Williams was 21 years old, she’d spent more than half of her life in foster care. Her brain worked in ways that reflected her past—she lacked confidence, mistrusted adults, and didn’t pursue positive opportunities.

Psychiatrists could have predicted Crystal’s future: She was slinking toward an adulthood that in all statistical likelihood contained unemployment, early pregnancy or jail.

“It was difficult for me to function in school and even think about getting a part-time job or participating in sports or other activities,” Williams said of her high school years.

At that time, scientists well-versed in the latest medical journals would have said her adult behavior and personality would be fixed by the patterns of her turbulent adolescence. But Williams acted in none of the predicted ways.

Instead, with support from a program that connected her with mentors, role models, training and resources, Williams secured scholarships for herself and graduated from Emory University, ranked by Parade magazine as “College A-List” for pre-med, business, accounting and health sciences programs, based on survey of top high school counselors nationwide.

New neurological research is proving that her brain was not at all set in its ways. Instead, neural pathways can be re-wired much later than was previously recognized, even up to and beyond the age of 25.

“This is some of the most exciting, thrilling, earth-shaking research ever, at least in my lifetime,” says Matthias Lundberg, a senior economist with the World Bank who has focused on youth in conflict. “I think it’s going to change the world, the way to do things, the way we educate.”

Lundberg, Williams and a panel of other development and scientific experts presented the practical implications of the findings at a discussion called “The Adolescent Brain is Open and Ready for Business”—part of the 2013 Global Youth Economic Opportunities Conference held Sept. 10 to 12 in Washington, D.C.

“A lot of research is available from the early childhood sector that says if we don’t get things done by the age of 5 or the age of 8, we’ve really missed the boat,” said panel moderator Bonnie Politz, Senior Youth Consultant at Creative Associates International. “There have been these really hard-fought and intense discussions about what this means for young people who are 10, 20, 25 [years old]. The research is increasingly saying we have plenty of opportunities.”

Teenage brains are still developing things like impulse control, organization, and the ability to plan and play out possible scenarios for the future.

That plasticity creates vulnerability, but also opportunity according to Dr. Jay Giedd, a neuroscientist at the National Institute of Mental Health. While trauma and stress can have a negative impact on the way it functions, “the brain has lots of opportunity to write itself,” he said.

The new scientific understanding reflects what Crystal Williams experienced personally.

She says being exposed to different career options, learning how to save and budget and feeling that she had the support of those around her made the difference in “re-wiring” her brain to make smart decisions and realize the powerful things she could achieve.

“This opportunity to provide a young person who had been through trauma with the opportunity to be a successful and contributing adult: now we see the linkage between this result and the brain research that’s coming out,” she said.

It has important implications for young people around the world who grow up amidst the trauma and despair caused by conflict, extreme poverty, violence and repression—which global development organizations see on a regular basis.

If their brains are able to be rewired after these experiences, then programs that support them to change their self-perception, goal-setting and problem-solving can have a real effect. New technologies and applications can take advantage of the malleability of the adolescent brain to wire it for positive decision-making, leadership and confidence.

A more nuanced understanding of the young brain might enable development organizations to make more effective job training programs, or frame new technologies in a more attractive light—by appealing to a sense of risk-taking or social inclusion, for example.

Kathleen Vickland, Vice President at Carana, told the audience: “This lengthened period of plasticity means that we have a second chance to reach out, to prepare them for jobs, to create nurturing opportunities and placements for youth. We’ve got to take advantage of it.”

Brain research has a very far way to go before the development community can program around neurology, the World Bank’s Lundberg pointed out.

“That little pieces of the brain light up when you do things doesn’t necessarily mean anything to us yet,” he said. “We can’t get too carried away or turned on by the science.”

There may be an overload point at which too much trauma makes recovery improbable.

And it’s not just brains that need a recalibration: organizations, human resources departments, training and mentorship programs and workforce development initiatives need to shift, as well to support older youths in developing skills and finding meaningful jobs.

“The biology isn’t the obstacle here in terms of creating change and turning things around,” said Dr. Geidd. “We’re just barely scratching the potential here if we could figure out how to change the environment.”

Meanwhile, for program implementers, Creative’s Politz emphasized “focusing on positive developmental aspects of what young people need in their lives and building on what really works.”

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