Brain and Behavior

New Research Finds Executive Function Matures By Age 18

Parents of teens who struggle with executive function—a set of brain skills them help us plan, stay focused, switch from task to task, and resist distractions—may find themselves asking, “When will their brain be fully developed?” A new study published in the journal Nature Communications seems to have found the answer.

The Research

In a first-of-its kind large-scale chart of cognitive development in teens, a team of researchers at the University of Pittsburgh collected and analyzed nearly two dozen laboratory measures of executive functions in more than 10,000 participants. Although previous attempts to build a roadmap of teens’ brain development have been made, researchers found that there was a high variability among individuals. In addition, the tools to analyze complex datasets weren’t readily available. But advancements in science and technology in recent years helped create a new opportunity.

“This is developmental science meets big data,” explained University of Minnesota Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences Dr. Brenden Tervo-Clemmens, who served as lead author on the study.  “We are using tools that were not available to researchers studying cognitive and brain development until several years ago. A study of this scale was made possible only by open data-sharing and collaborators who graciously gave access to their datasets without asking anything in return.”

The researchers collected 23 distinct measures of executive function from the participants, who were 8 to 35 years old, and analyzed those metrics by tracking their change over time. They assessed whether performance across different tests fit a single trajectory that could be described with a mathematical model.

The Results

The scientists showed a common dynamic of executive function maturation in both men and women. This included:

• Ages 10-15: A rapid burst of executive function development in late childhood to mid-adolescence

• Ages 15-18: Small but significant changes through mid-adolescence

• Ages 18-20: Stabilization to adult-level performance by late adolescence

“Other important behavioral factors that complement executive function, such as the ability to control one’s own emotions, can change with age,” explains University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine Professor of Psychiatry Dr. Beatriz Luna, an expert on neurocognitive development and senior author of the study. “The ability to use executive function reliably improves with age and, at least in a laboratory setting, matures by 18 years of age.”

How these findings can help

The roadmap created by charting the neurotypical brain development timeline can serve several purposes.

First, it could allow experts to track even subtle shifts away from the neurotypical teen brain and provide an early diagnosis for mental illnesses that emerge in adolescence, such as schizophrenia.

In addition, these reproducible growth charts could help researchers track the effects of therapeutic and drug interventions on developmental milestones.


Wendy Burt-Thomas writes about the brain, mental health and parenting.

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