Adolescence and reward: Making sense of neural and behavioral changes amid the chaos

Deena M. Walker, Margaret R. Bell, Cecilia Flores, Joshua M. Gulley, Jari Willing, Matthew J. Paul

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


Adolescence is a time of significant neural and behavioral change with remarkable development in social, emotional, and cognitive skills. It is also a time of increased exploration and risk-taking (e.g., drug use). Many of these changes are thought to be the result of increased reward-value coupled with an underdeveloped inhibitory control, and thus a hypersensitivity to reward. Perturbations during adolescence can alter the developmental trajectory of the brain, resulting in long-term alterations in reward-associated behaviors. This review highlights recent developments in our understanding of how neural circuits, pubertal hormones, and environmental factors contribute to adolescent-typical reward-associated behaviors with a particular focus on sex differences, the medial prefrontal cortex, social reward, social isolation, and drug use. We then introduce a new approach that makes use of natural adaptations of seasonally breeding species to investigate the role of pubertal hormones in adolescent development. This research has only begun to parse out contributions of the many neural, endocrine, and environmental changes to the heightened reward sensitivity and increased vulnerability to mental health disorders that characterize this life stage.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)10855-10866
Number of pages12
JournalJournal of Neuroscience
Issue number45
StatePublished - Nov 8 2017


  • Drugs of abuse
  • Medial prefrontal cortex
  • Mesocorticolimbic dopamine pathway
  • Puberty
  • Sex differences
  • Social reward

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Neuroscience


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