(Pro)Social Neuroscience of Adolescent Development

(Pro)Social Neuroscience of Adolescent Development

This research network emerged from a workshop supported by the Jacobs Foundation at Schloss Marbach, May 1–2, 2014 entitled: Making Connections: How Neural Development and Social Experience Interact to Create Productive and Socially Engaged Youth, which was organized by Andrew Fuligni, Ron Dahl, Adriana Galván and Eveline Crone. A research network has been developed to extend the exciting ideas that emerged from that meeting, led and supported by Jennifer Pfeifer and the rest of the leadership team from the Center on the Developing Adolescent. Current heuristic models of adolescent development broadly characterize the risks and vulnerabilities of this period as deriving from an imbalance between neurobiological systems that support different affective or motivational states and regulatory capacities. The overarching objective of the group is to advance these heuristic models by expanding on the relevant systems and processes that enrich our understanding of adolescence as a key window of opportunity in developmental trajectories toward healthy, productive, and socially engaged adults. The specific goals of this group are to identify:

  • experience-dependent neuro-maturational processes during the adolescent period that contribute to the development of individual differences in ‘valuing’ processes, with an emphasis on understanding pro-social trajectories in motivation, productivity, and social engagement.
  • how particular types of social experiences — whether naturally occurring or intentionally programmed — can shape specific neuro-maturational processes in ways that promote positive developmental trajectories.
  • specific types of neural-social interactions that offer the most promise for research and intervention focusing on positive development among youth.

This group is currently exploring the potential of establishing an international network of scholars to address these issues through interaction, collaborative research, and/or joint training.


Jennifer Pfeifer is an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology and the Director of the Developmental Social Neuroscience Lab. Her research focuses on the transition from childhood through adolescence which is characterized by changing brains and bodies, affect and motivation, peer relationships and conceptions of self — many strands which combine to shape behavior during this critical period. Dr. Pfeifer is interested in how affect, motivation, regulation, self-evaluation, and social perception interact across contexts, are instantiated at the neural level, as well as influence adolescent choices and well-being. She studies the development of these related phenomena at multiple levels, with the goal of enabling healthy transitions from childhood through adolescence and into adulthood. She is also interested in how functional brain development is affected by various endogenous and exogenous factors such as pubertal development and early adversity. Her work has been funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, National Institute of Mental Health, National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, National Science Foundation, and the Oregon Medical Research Foundation.

Andrew Fuligni is Professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences and the Department of Psychology. He also is a Senior Scientist in the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior. Dr. Fuligni and his collaborators employ multiple methods to study the interaction between socio-cultural experience and biobehavioral development during adolescence and young adulthood, with particular attention to teenagers from Latin American, Asian, European, and immigrant backgrounds. Receiving his Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology at the University of Michigan, he was a recipient of the American Psychological Association’s Boyd McCandless Award for Early Career Contribution to Developmental Psychology, a William T. Grant Faculty Scholars Award, a FIRST award from NICHD, and he is a Fellow in the American Psychological Association and the Association for Psychological Science. Dr. Fuligni recently completed a six-year term an Associate Editor of the journal Child Development.

Eveline Crone is a full professor of neurocognitive developmental psychology at Leiden University and in affective neurocognitive development in adolescence at the University of Amsterdam. Eveline’s research includes the psychological and neural processes involved in cognitive control and self-regulation. All of her work employs a developmental cognitive neuroscience approach to examine the relation between brain development and changes in psychological processes from birth to adulthood.

Sarah-Jayne Blakemore is a Royal Society University Research Fellow and Professor in Cognitive Neuroscience at UCL. She is Leader of the Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience Group and deputy director of the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience. Her group’s research focuses on brain development in human adolescence. Professor Blakemore studied Experimental Psychology at Oxford University and then did her PhD at UCL and a postdoc in Lyon, France. Since 2003 she has held a series of Royal Society Research Fellowships at UCL.

Adriana Galván is an Associate Professor of Psychology and Director of the Developmental Neuroscience Laboratory at UCLA. Her research is aimed at characterizing ontogenetic neural changes that occur as individuals transition into and out of adolescence. Her work in this domain has particularly focused on neural systems implicated in affective, cognitive and social processing, all of which contribute to characteristic adolescent behavior. Dr. Galván is also committed to studying the developing brain within the family and peer context. She relies on a multi method approach, including neuroimaging, physiological assays, daily diary and family interview methods to conduct this research.

Ron Dahl is a pediatrician and developmental scientist whose work focuses on adolescence as a developmental period with unique opportunities for early intervention in relation to a wide range of behavioral and emotional health problems. His research is interdisciplinary and bridges between basic developmental research (emphasizing social and affective neuroscience) and the translation of this work into clinical and social policy relevance. He has published extensively on child and adolescent development, sleep disorders, behavioral/emotional health in children, adolescent brain development, and on the policy implications of this work.

Nicholas Allen is the Ann Swindells Professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Oregon. Professor Allen is a leading researcher in the area of clinical depression, especially for his work on the relationship between biological and interpersonal aspects of adolescent development and risk for the onset of depression. His recent work focuses on identifying potent, modifiable risk factors for poor mental health during adolescence, and developing and testing preventative interventions that target these risk factors. He uses a developmental psychopathology approach to understand how children and adolescents are affected by the environments in which they grow up, especially aspects of the child’s environment that have been shown to increase risk for mental health problems (e.g., family conflict, stress, abuse, socio-economic disadvantage) influence the adolescent’s emotional functioning and the development of the biological systems that undergird these emotions. The aim of this work is to not only shed light on the underlying causes of mental health and ill-health during these stages of life, but also to inform innovative approaches to early intervention and prevention by utilizing this knowledge to generate and test novel, developmentally-targeted clinical and public health interventions.

Wouter Van den Bos is a Research Scientist at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development as a member of the Center for Adaptive Rationality (ARC). The central aim of his research is to understand how changes in brain structure function are related to the development of specific psychological processes involved in complex decisions in social and non-social environments. By combining techniques from psychology, cognitive neuroscience, behavioral economics and computer science he develops novel models about how psychological processes (e.g., perspective taking & cognitive control) are represented in the brain (e.g., TPJ & DLPFC) and motivate certain decisions (e.g risk taking or sharing). A second aim of his research is to understand how the environment of development, such as social network structure, is related to developmental changes in behaviour (e.g. increased status seeking) as well as its impact on how certain brain structures develop.

Ahna Suleiman is a Research Scientist with the Center on the Developing Adolescent. Ahna recently completed her DrPH at UC Berkeley and her research focuses on how adolescent social, emotional and adolescent development affect decision-making and the unique ways they influence sexual decision-making. She is interested in how neuroscience, behavioral economics, and health psychology can be integrated into improved public health interventions. Ahna is very interested in promoting transdisciplinary dialogue that promotes the translation of research into policy and practice. The ultimate goal of her research is to develop interventions that support healthy sexual development and improved sexual health outcomes for adolescents.

Eva Telzer leads a research team examining how social contexts modulate adolescent decision making, paying particular attention to the contexts in which heightened affective sensitivity is a source of vulnerability or opportunity. Her work has shown that adolescents who show heightened reward-related neural activation during prosocial behavior show longitudinal declines in risk taking and depression highlighting adolescence as an important period for developing passions and positive, goal-oriented behaviors that confer long-term resilience.

Linda Wilbrecht is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology where her research lab focuses on lab how experience alters neural circuits that contribute to value and reward based decision making. Her research goals include understanding how early life experience with unstable environments, stress or drugs of abuse might alter or limit human potential. She is particularly interested mechanisms that regulate sensitive periods for neural plasticity and how these map onto the maturation of frontal cortical-striatal circuits. Through better knowledge of neural plasticity and sensitive period regulation in frontal circuits, she hopes to identify strategies to facilitate change in neural circuits and promote healthy decision making. The Wilbrecht lab focuses largely on rodent models, but is also collecting data from human subjects. In these studies she is particularly interested in social and economic factors that impact future time perspective, risk taking, and decision making at puberty.