Teen brains develop differently depending on whether they’re night owls or early birds: ScienceAlert

Teen brains develop differently depending on whether they’re night owls or early birds: ScienceAlert

It’s 11:00 PM on a weeknight and your teenager still has the bedroom light on. You want them to get enough sleep for school the next day, but it’s a struggle.

Ours new research shows what happens to the brains and behavior of young teenagers, years after they become “night owls”.

We found that this change in sleep patterns increased the risk of behavioral problems and delayed brain development in later adolescence.

But it’s not all bad news for night owls.

Sleeping habits change

People are sleeping patterns change during their teenage years. Teenagers may stay up longer, fall asleep later and lie the next day.

Many teenagers also transition from being a the morning lark to the night owl. They feel more productive and alert later in the evening, prefer to go to sleep later, and wake up later the next day.

This shift to “evening” can conflict with a teenager’s school and work. Chronic sleep deprivation, due to these misaligned sleep schedules, may explain why teenagers who are night owls in higher risk for emotional and behavioral problems than those who are morning larks.

New research also shows that morning larks and night owls are different brain structure. These include differences in gray and white matter, which are linked to differences in memory, emotional well-being, attention and empathy.

Despite these connections, it is unclear how this connection could arise. Does being a night owl increase the risk of later emotional and behavioral problems? Or do emotional and behavioral problems cause one to become more of a night owl?

In our research, we tried to answer these questions, following teenagers for many years.

What we did

We asked over 200 teenagers and their parents to fill out a series of questionnaires about teens’ sleep preferences and emotional and behavioral well-being. Participants repeated these questionnaires several times over the next seven years.

The teenagers also had two brain scans, a few years apart, to examine their brain development. We focused on mapping changes in the structure of white matter – the brain’s connective tissue that allows our brain to process information and function efficiently.

Earlier research shows the white matter structure of morning larks and night owls they are different. However, our study is the first to examine how changes in sleep preferences may affect white matter growth over time.

Here’s what we found

Teenagers who became night owls in early adolescence (around age 12-13) were more likely to have behavioral problems a few years later. These included greater aggression, rule breaking and antisocial behaviour.

But they were not at increased risk of emotional problems, such as anxiety or low mood.

Importantly, this relationship did not occur in the reverse direction. In other words, we found that earlier emotional and behavioral problems did not influence whether a teenager became more of a morning lark or a night owl in late adolescence.

Our research also showed that teenagers who switched to night owls had a different rate of brain development than teenagers who remained morning larks.

We found that the white matter of night owls did not increase to the same degree as teenage morning larks.

We know white matter growth is important in the teenage years to support cognitive, emotional and behavioral development.

What are the implications?

These findings are being built upon previous research showing differences in brain structure between morning larks and night owls. It also builds on earlier research that suggests these changes may occur in the teenage years.

Importantly, we show that becoming a night owl increases the risk of behavioral problems and delayed brain development in later adolescence, not the other way around.

These findings highlight the importance of focusing on teen sleep and wake habits in early adolescence to support their later emotional and behavioral health. We know enough sleep extremely important for mental and brain health.

Here’s some good news

It’s not all bad news for night owls. As our research shows, the preferences of morning larks and night owls are not set in stone. Research shows that we can change our sleeping preferences and habits.

For example, exposure to light (even artificial light) alters our circadian rhythms, which can affect our sleep preferences. So minimizing late-night exposure to bright lights and screens may be one way to modify our preferences and desire to sleep.

Exposure to light First thing in the morning can also help reset our internal clocks to a morning rhythm. You can encourage your teenager to have breakfast outside, or to go to the balcony or garden before going to school or work.Conversation

Rebecca CooperPhD candidate in neuropsychiatry, University of Melbourne; Maria Di Biasesenior research associate, psychiatry, University of Melbourneand Vanessa Cropleysenior research associate, University of Melbourne

This article was republished by Conversation under Creative Commons license. Read it original article.

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