PFC | The Pre-Frontal Cortex and Adolescence

Posted on November 3, 2008


I came across this article while searching out information on the Pre-Frontal Cortex. For anyone working with youth, read the descriptions below and see if anything makes you go “aha.” Perhaps this will help make some sense of what you face.

A faithful reproduction of a lithograph plate from Gray's Anatomy

(Cf. also “Damage to the prefrontal cortex increases utilitarian moral judgments” –

This area of the brain is thought to be involved in

  • planning complex cognitive behaviors
  • the expression of personality
  • moderating correct or appropriate social behavior
  • conscience
  • the orchestration of thoughts and actions in accordance with internal goals

The most typical neurologic term for functions carried out by the pre-frontal cortex area is executive function. Executive function relates to,

  • abilities to differentiate among conflicting thoughts
  • determining good and bad, better and best, same and different
  • future consequences of current activities
  • working toward a defined goal, prediction of outcomes, expectation based on actions, and social “control” (the ability to suppress urges that, if not suppressed, could lead to socially-unacceptable outcomes).

These findings indicate that, for a selective set of moral dilemmas, the VMPC (ventromedial prefrontal cortex) is critical for normal judgments of right and wrong. The findings support a necessary role for emotion in the generation of those judgments.

Other factors of life affected by the PFC:

  • Cost vs. benefit analysis
  • Risk vs. reward


I list these here as a step in the direction towards discovering better how to explain to both teenagers and parents the development of adolescence, to mitigate the conflicts between parents and students, and to alleviate the fear in parents about their child’s future.

I sent an email to the authors asking them these questions:

1. Does discipline (not just corporeal punishment, but teachings, lessons, etc.) actually help the development, and therefore the functioning of the PFC, and therefore the behavior of adolescents?

2. Has there been a link to diet, exercise, etc., in the loss of these neurons in the PFC during adolescence?

3. What is the scientific community’s suggestion to parents and teens if the research is suggesting that this is a natural course of events?

Her response was that these are good questions, but the phenomenon is too new to identify any concrete answers/responses. I’ll be tracking down some other research for my studies. In the meantime, I’ll continue on believing that a moderate “both/and” perspective is most helpful. That is to say that this may be a natural course of biological maturation processes inevitable in adolescent puberty, but there are environmental and social factors that can greatly affect their development. There is still a deep connection and relationship between biology, spirituality, emotions, intelligence, etc. And to relegate any human phenomenon to one simple area is to be dishonest with reality and to abdicate our responsibilities towards our children, and ultimately, ourselves.

Now, let’s go believe in some youth…