WASHINGTON: Turns out, reproductive hormones that develop during puberty are not responsible for changes in social behaviour that occur during adolescence.
"Changes in social behavior during adolescence appear to be independent of pubertal hormones. They are not triggered by puberty, so we can't blame the hormones," said lead author Matthew Paul from the University at Buffalo.
Disentangling the adolescent changes that are triggered by puberty from those unrelated to puberty is difficult because puberty and adolescence occur simultaneously, but Paul and his collaborators have found a way to tease out the two using a seasonal-breeding animal model.
His new model, explained in the study with co-authors Clemens Probst, provided a basic understanding that did not previously exist for what drives adolescent social development.
Adolescence is a critical period of development for individuals, noted Paul.
Complex thinking develops; many mental health disorders arise; and it is associated with the beginning of high-risk behaviours, like drug use. For social behaviour, it is a time when the focus of children's social relationships shifts from the family to peers. In other words, they stop wanting to hang out with mom and dad. It has been widely assumed that these changes can be attributed to increases in gonadal hormones at puberty.
"What we've done here is find a new way to ask the question of how puberty plays a role in adolescent development - a new way to determine which developmental changes pubertal hormones trigger and which changes they do not."
In conversation, we might hear puberty and adolescence used interchangeably, yet biologically, they are two distinct processes.
Puberty is the process by which individuals develop the ability to reproduce. It is triggered by the activation of the reproductive axis, which is responsible for the development of reproductive capability, the appearance of secondary sexual characteristics, and the increase in gonadal hormones.
Adolescence is broader. It encompasses puberty, but also includes cognitive, social, and emotional changes that occur during the teenage years.
Paul noted, "These findings are also important for adolescent mental health - understanding the underlying mechanisms responsible for adolescent development will provide insight into why so many mental health disorders arise during this time in life."
The study is published in the journal Current Biology.