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The prefrontal cortex is getting a lot of love and attention in the media lately, but what does it actually do and how does it develop? Watch this video to brush up on your knowledge of our frontal lobe friend, the prefrontal cortex.

What Is the Prefrontal Cortex?

Tyler is in his early twenties and getting ready to graduate from college.

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Though he makes pretty good choices, his mother, a clinical psychologist, keeps telling him his brain isn’t quite done growing just yet. How can that be? Tyler has been on his own at college for several years now and getting along pretty well. He wonders what part of his brain is still developing.

Tyler’s mom is referring to his prefrontal cortex, or PFC. It’s located behind the forehead in the frontal lobe of the brain and is responsible for many higher-level thinking skills, like analytical processing and executive decision-making. The PFC is also in charge of helping with behavior modification.If Tyler gets into a conflict, his PFC is right there helping him predict outcomes and guiding him to a good choice. In fact, the PFC is largely responsible for decision making when it comes to social choices, like sexual impulses, choosing right from wrong, planning, short-term memory, making good friends or suppressing or expressing emotions. How does it do all that? Maybe we should take a trip into Tyler’s noggin and peek around at his PFC.

What’s Going on in There?

The PFC is often called the ‘brain center’ because it takes in information through senses, like touch and sight, and processes it to make decisions about reactions and behaviors. Tyler’s personality and intelligence are played out through his PFC.When he and his friends go to a ball game and smell hot dogs, hear the fans cheer and watch the players, they all process this input through their PFC. Each reacts to the stimulus in differing ways; Tyler may be annoyed by the crowd and his friend Eric may be excited by it.

The stimulus is the same – the crowd, but each boy will react differently to it depending on how the information is processed in the PFC.But the PFC is more than just a personality center. The activity in this region is an important decision maker, often called executive function. Tyler’s PFC works as a center that takes in information and ‘decides’ future thoughts and actions based on his goals. It controls and adjusts thoughts and reactions for long and short-term decisions, and it helps him make plans about his future.When Tyler was in school, his PFC helped him study, focus and pay attention in class; in fact, it helped him juggle several different kinds of thinking, like evaluating and defending, at the same time.

He is a complex thinker because his PFC has developed over time – he certainly wasn’t able to study for such long stretches of time in middle school!His growing and maturing PFC has helped him rein in his impulses and focus on his goals, even when others around him were caught up in immediate gratification acts, like drinking and drugs. With all these good decisions, he still wonders why his PFC isn’t finished growing. For that, we look to biology.

Development of the Prefrontal Cortex

The pre-frontal cortex makes up about 12% of the human brain by volume.

Although this is larger than in most mammals, it’s not overly large. In fact, there are some species that have larger frontal cortexes compared to brain size: Chihuahuas and many lemurs. So, size alone doesn’t explain why humans are able to compose music and write computer code, and lemurs are able to swing from trees. The latest theory comes down to connections; the number of connections in this area may be especially large for humans. Here’s how that works.The prefrontal cortex is the last part of the brain to develop.

Some researchers think it isn’t quite fully developed until humans are 25 years old. Technology such as the magnetic resonance imaging machine, or MRI, has shown that the PFC undergoes dramatic changes during adolescence. Why is that? The brain produces a substance called myelin, a thick coating of nerve fibers.

Myelin does a few things – it protects neurons, or nerve cells, and also speeds up the electrical signals sent between neurons.The myelin in Tyler’s brain began to develop quickly in the teen years and has been continuing to develop in his twenties. Myelin is responsible for helping to connect thoughts, including consequences for risky behavior. Until these important connections are strong, Tyler and his friends aren’t always able to clearly rationalize and predict danger.

Lesson Summary

Tyler thinks he’s a big guy on campus because he’ll graduate soon and is doing pretty well in school. It looks like his prefrontal cortex is doing a good job of regulating his impulse and behavior. But like his mom says, it isn’t quite all roses just yet.

Tyler’s PFC, located in the front part of his head just behind his forehead, is still growing. The development of higher-level thinking, like reasoning, predicting and control are still growing.Because myelin, the substance in the brain that helps make connections between neurons, is still maturing, Tyler and his peers are still at risk for making poor choices.

Even though his PFC seems to be aligning his goals and actions pretty well, it’s good for him to be aware of this continued maturity for a few more years. By then, he may have children of his own; then he can begin worrying about their executive brain function.

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