Increased limbic and striatal activation in adolescence has been attributed to a relative delay in the maturation of prefrontal areas, resulting in the increase of impulsive reward-seeking behaviors that are often observed during puberty. However, it remains unclear whether and how this general developmental pattern applies to the control of social emotional actions, a fundamental adult skill refined during adolescence. This domain of control pertains to decisions involving emotional responses. When faced with a social emotional challenge (e.g., an angry face), we can follow automatic response tendencies and avoid the challenge or exert control over those tendencies by selecting an alternative action. Using an fMRI-adapted social approach-avoidance task, this study identifies how the neural regulation of emotional action control changes as a function of human pubertal development in 14-year-old adolescents (n = 47). Pubertal maturation, indexed by testosterone levels, shifted neural regulation of emotional actions from the pulvinar nucleus of the thalamus and the amygdala to the anterior prefrontal cortex (aPFC). Adolescents with more advanced pubertal maturation showed greater aPFC activity when controlling their emotional action tendencies, reproducing the same pattern consistently observed in adults. In contrast, adolescents of the same age, but with less advanced pubertal maturation, showed greater pulvinar and amygdala activity when exerting similarly effective emotional control. These findings qualify how, in the domain of social emotional actions, executive control shifts from subcortical to prefrontal structures during pubertal development. The pulvinar and the amygdala are suggested as the ontogenetic precursors of the mature control system centered on the anterior prefrontal cortex.
Significance statement: Adolescents can show distinct behavioral problems when emotionally aroused. This could be related to later development of frontal regions compared with deeper brain structures. This study found that when the control of emotional actions needs to be exerted, more mature adolescents, similar to adults, recruit the anterior prefrontal cortex (aPFC). Less mature adolescents recruit specific subcortical regions, namely the pulvinar and amygdala. These findings identify the subcortical pulvino-amygdalar pathway as a relevant precursor of a mature aPFC emotional control system, opening the way for a neurobiological understanding of how emotion control-related disorders emerge during puberty.
Keywords: adolescence; approach-avoidance task; fMRI; frontal pole; hormones; thalamus.