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Puberty hormones may trigger changes in learning

Brain study of mice may have broad implications for the health and education of adolescent girls.

By
Amy Wallace
A new study shows that puberty hormones can start changes in flexible learning. Photo by Diego Cervo/UPI
A new study shows that puberty hormones can start changes in flexible learning. Photo by Diego Cervo/UPI

June 2 (UPI) -- Researchers at the University of Berkeley have found that puberty may have an impact on flexible learning in adolescence after studies on mice.

"Puberty onset is occurring earlier and earlier in girls in modern urban settings -- driven by such factors as stress and the obesity epidemic -- and has been associated with worse outcomes in terms of school and mental health," Linda Wilbrecht, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at UC Berkeley, said in a press release.

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The study found significant changes in neural communication in the frontal cortices, the region of the brain associated with learning, attention and behavioral regulation, of female mice after they were exposed to pubertal hormones.

"We have found that the onset of puberty hits something like a 'switch' in the brain's frontal cortex that can reduce flexibility in some forms of learning," Wilbrecht said.

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Researchers measured the electrical activity of brain cells in the frontal cortices of post-pubertal mice and found significant changes in the synaptic activity that regulates brain flexibility or plasticity.

The study showed that post-pubertal mice had a harder time adapting to changes compared to their pre-pubertal counterparts.

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Children have greater brain plasticity than adults allowing them to easily master multiple languages and other tasks.

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Even though children continue to learn after puberty, their cognitive focus in adolescence is redirected to peer relationships and social learning.

These findings may have educational and health implications for girls who are entering their first stage of puberty at earlier ages such as 7 or 8. If hormonal changes start this early when children are in second or third grade, the shift in brain function is problematic.

The study was published in Current Biology.

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