Spring 2019 Newsletter

Risky Decisions—Helpful or Harmful

teen thinking about peer pressure, graffiti on walls, other teens walking

Developmental psychologist Kirby Deater-Deckard, is a co-investigator on a recently renewed five-year, $3.7 million grant from the NIH’s National Institute on Drug Abuse to support a research team studying the environmental and neurobiological risk factors that influence brain development and healthy versus unhealthy decision-making in adolescence and early adulthood.

The project is following a cohort of about 150 youths, first enrolled in the study when they were 14 years old, as they progress out of adolescence and into young adulthood. The researchers are collecting behavioral, cognitive, physiological, genetic and brain imaging data annually. The study is unusual, Deater-Deckard says, because the participants come from many different types of households and income levels in rural and urban Appalachian communities.

Principal investigators are Jungmeen Kim Spoon and Brooks King-Casas at Virginia Tech, and in addition to Deater-Deckard, other co-investigators are Warren Bickel and Stephen LaConte at Virginia Tech’s Carilion Research Institute.

As Deater-Deckard explains, “The field of psychological and brain sciences is rapidly making discoveries about how brain development in adolescence and early adulthood is affected by interactions between neural activity, genes and contexts such as poverty and peer influences. Advancing our understanding of how these factors interact in development is critical to improving knowledge about why adolescents make riskier decisions that can enhance their healthy development but that also can increase risk for such problems as dangerous driving, substance abuse and exposure to sexually transmitted diseases.”

With the continuation of funding for this long-term study, the researchers hope to provide new information to fill key knowledge gaps, he adds. Findings should be helpful to healthcare and public health professionals, educators and related policy groups.

Deater-Deckard notes, “Sometimes people make good decisions and sometimes they make decisions that can harm themselves or other people. When we are teenagers and young adults, we are more likely to make ‘risky’ decisions. These can be good decisions; sometimes, taking a risk can lead to a new experience that helps you grow and become wiser.”

“But sometimes, taking a risk can lead to experiences that hurt you or others around you. In our research project, we are trying to understand how our brains and bodies develop when we are teenagers, for teens living in very different kinds of places. We hope to use this knowledge to help youth, schools, hospitals and parents provide more help to teenagers, so that they make healthier decisions and make fewer dangerous decisions.”

Deater-Deckard, who studies child and adolescent cognitive and social-emotional development and the role of parenting and peer environments on developmental outcomes, helps lead the Developmental Science Initiative (DSI) at UMass Amherst. The DSI includes the Healthy Development Initiative at the UMass Center at Springfield, where colleagues and students conduct research and outreach to discover and share new knowledge about human development.