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Decisions about sex activate different brain regions in adolescent girls

In a first-of-its-kind study, researchers have shown that teenage girls use different parts of their brain when making hypothetical low- and high-risk decisions about sex.

In a pilot study reported in the , researchers , Ph.D., and , Ph.D., analyzed the and self-reported behaviors of 14- and 15-year-old girls using a functional magnetic resonance image and 30 days of daily diary reports.

Recent studies have demonstrated the advantages of using functional MRI to understand how reward- and control-related regions of the brain are related to different risk behaviors, such as reckless driving or substance use, in adolescence. This is the first study to use functional MRI to link brain activity in mid-adolescent-aged females to their sexual decisions.

The researchers found that teenaged girls spend less time making decisions about participating in risky behavior than they do when evaluating low-risk activities. They also determined that an area of the brain involved with controlling impulses and emotion is more engaged with high- risk sexual decision-making than with other high-risk decisions.

“Learning to express and manage sexuality is a normal part of development,” said Dr. Hensel, who is an assistant research professor of pediatrics in the Section of Adolescent Medicine at the IU School of Medicine and an assistant professor of sociology at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. “During adolescence, young women encounter a variety of new experiences that involve balancing new relationships, heightened emotions and sexual desire. The majority of young women navigate this process without issue, but risky sexual behaviors can be associated with adverse outcomes such as unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections.”

“By evaluating brain activity while young people make decisions about high- and low-risk behavior, we can better determine how the brain is involved in managing the emotions and motivations associated with different sex-related behaviors,” said Dr. Hummer, assistant research professor in the IU School of Medicine Department of Psychiatry. “Greater knowledge in this area could lead to opportunities to better educate teens about making healthy decisions.”

The 14 study participants first underwent functional MRI, a neuroimaging procedure that measures brain activity by detecting changes in blood flow within the areas of the brain. During that procedure, participants were introduced to sex-related and non-sex-related scenarios, and they were asked to rate their likelihood of participating in the low- or high-risk activity. The functional MRI captured the teens’ brain activity while they were contemplating the decision.