Tyborowska, A., Volman, I., Smeekens, S., Toni, I., & Roelofs, K. (2016). Testosterone during Puberty Shifts Emotional Control from Pulvinar to Anterior Prefrontal Cortex. The Journal of Neuroscience, 36(23), 6156-6164.
Increased limbic and striatal activation in adolescence has been attributed to a relative delay in the maturation of prefrontal areas, resulting in the increase of impulsive reward-seeking behaviors that are often observed during puberty. However, it remains unclear whether and how this general developmental pattern applies to the control of social emotional actions, a fundamental adult skill refined during adolescence. This domain of control pertains to decisions involving emotional responses. When faced with a social emotional challenge (e.g., an angry face), we can follow automatic response tendencies and avoid the challenge or exert control over those tendencies by selecting an alternative action. Using an fMRI-adapted social approach-avoidance task, this study identifies how the neural regulation of emotional action control changes as a function of human pubertal development in 14-year-old adolescents (n = 47). Pubertal maturation, indexed by testosterone levels, shifted neural regulation of emotional actions from the pulvinar nucleus of the thalamus and the amygdala to the anterior prefrontal cortex (aPFC). Adolescents with more advanced pubertal maturation showed greater aPFC activity when controlling their emotional action tendencies, reproducing the same pattern consistently observed in adults. In contrast, adolescents of the same age, but with less advanced pubertal maturation, showed greater pulvinar and amygdala activity when exerting similarly effective emotional control. These findings qualify how, in the domain of social emotional actions, executive control shifts from subcortical to prefrontal structures during pubertal development. The pulvinar and the amygdala are suggested as the ontogenetic precursors of the mature control system centered on the anterior prefrontal cortex.