Neurologist to adolescents: “Mind your brain now and it will mind you later.”


The majority of neurological research focuses on the two extremes of the lifespan: the early years of brain development and the aging brain.

Dr. Frances Jensen, Professor and Chair of the Department of Neurology at the University of Pennsylvania, recently joined UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake and a large audience to discuss the mind-blowing results of research conducted over the last decade showing that adolescence is also a critical phase of brain development.

Did you know that the brain is the last organ in the body to mature? That due to brain plasticity in the teen years, IQ changes for 2/3 of adolescents? That adolescents are guided primarily by emotions because their frontal lobes are not yet fully connected to other parts of the brain?

Author of the widely acclaimed book “The Teenage Brain”, Dr Jensen walked a captivated audience through the latest neuroscience findings and imagery techniques to show how the adolescent brain possesses unique strengths and vulnerabilities. Science is clear: adolescence is a critical “window of opportunity” in brain development.

Jensen also highlighted how different environmental factors, such as stress, violence, and substance abuse, affect the adolescent brain development. She also showed how such stressors had short term (e.g., stopping the growth of synapses) as well as long term effects (e.g., pruning of synapses) on the brain.

This latest neuroscience is critically important for UNICEF. Working in difficult and complex situations throughout the world, we count on the best science to guide our investments – those that begin in early childhood and which need to be sustained through adolescence and beyond. Neuroscience is one source of knowledge that can strengthen programmes and policies aimed at both protecting and enabling adolescents to fulfill their greatest potential.

This conversation was only the first step in UNICEF’s exploration of the latest neuroscience to inform its work with adolescents. We will keep you posted as we move forward to further unpack this evidence with the world’s leading experts, all aimed at accelerating results for children across the first two decades of life.

Want to learn more? View the full Conversation here and let us know what you think!

This discussion took place on 16 November 2015 as part of UNICEF’s Conversations with Thought Leaders series. Katell Le Goulven is Chief of Policy Planning, Division of Data, Research and Policy; and Judith Diers is Chief of Adolescent Development and Participation, Programme Division at UNICEF.

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