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The Teenage Brain


Something happens to us all once we become teenagers. From about 12 years old, we begin to change and there is a natural phase of remodelling in the architecture of the brain.

At this time, adolescents partially withdraw from thinking with a section of their brain called the prefrontal cortex. This is the part which is related to logical, rational thinking as well as calculating risk. This part of the brain becomes subdued during this phase with adolescents reverting back to the limbic brain (commonly referred to as the animal brain!) and specifically the amygdala. The amygdala is known for being emotional. The amygdala is that part of the brain which is responsible for survival instincts. It is the part which judges every single situation we are in and asks, “am I safe or am I in danger?”

Because this part is responsible for survival, when it is activated there is a primitive response that turns on within us which is a ‘predator vs prey’ survival. Kill or be killed. This is why conversations can explode into arguments within seconds over something seemingly trivial, because anything that isn’t seen as ‘prey’ – as utterly supportive to their needs - must therefore be a ‘predator’ and their brain flicks over into defence mode for protection of their survival. This is why they’re so crazy! This is why YOU were crazy! And this is why car rental companies charge a higher insurance premium for people under the age of 25. They know that the brain is literally programmed with a lowered recognition for risk and lowered level of rational thinking during this time.

The culprit is a neurotransmitter called GABA which is an inhibitor within the brain – it calms excited nerves. It calms anxiety. It calms addiction. It calms impulsivity. It regulates and calms excitement at both ends of the spectrum – ups and downs. However, during adolescence, this inhibitory neurotransmitter is inhibited itself! The self-soothing chemical we rely on to equilibrate our manic and depressed states literally slows down in production and allows teens and tweens to fluctuate dramatically between low moods and even self-harm right through to elation and obsessive compulsions.

Enter yoga.

Research has demonstrated that even after one class of yoga, GABA levels spike. At the same time that GABA levels spike, the neurotransmitter which is its opposite, Glutamate, drops. Glutamate is an excitatory. So after even one yoga class, the chemical in your brain which amplifies moods is regulated and calmed and the chemical in your brain which calms and regulates increases. That’s just one class. Analysis shows that after 12 weeks of regular yoga practice, GABA levels stabilise at a higher base-line, with Glutamate stabilising at a lower base-line.

"The development of an inexpensive intervention such as yoga, that has no side effects, but is effective in alleviating the symptoms of disorders associated with low GABA levels, has clear public health advantage" Perry Renshaw, MD, PhD, Director of the Brain Imaging Center.

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