Brain motivational circuitry in human adolescence is poorly characterized. One theory holds that risky behavior in adolescence results in part from a relatively overactive ventral striatal (VS) motivational circuit that readily energizes approach toward salient appetitive cues. However, other evidence fosters a theory that this circuit is developmentally underactive, in which adolescents approach more robust incentives (such as risk taking or drug experimentation) to recruit this circuitry. To help resolve this, we compared brain activation in 12 adolescents (12-17 years of age) and 12 young adults (22-28 years of age) while they anticipated the opportunity to respond to obtain monetary gains as well as to avoid monetary losses. In both age groups, anticipation of potential gain activated portions of the VS, right insula, dorsal thalamus, and dorsal midbrain, where the magnitude of VS activation was sensitive to gain amount. Notification of gain outcomes (in contrast with missed gains) activated the mesial frontal cortex (mFC). Across all subjects, signal increase in the right nucleus accumbens during anticipation of responding for large gains independently correlated with both age and self-rated excitement about the high gain cue. In direct comparison, adolescents evidenced less recruitment of the right VS and right-extended amygdala while anticipating responding for gains (in contrast with anticipation of nongains) compared with young adults. However, brain activation after gain outcomes did not appreciably differ between age groups. These results suggest that adolescents selectively show reduced recruitment of motivational but not consummatory components of reward-directed behavior.
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