What is the nucleus accumbens?

Ronald Siegel
In the 1950s, psychologists identified a "pleasure center" in an area of the brain known as the nucleus accumbens. They found that laboratory animals would press a lever to deliver an electrical stimulus to their own brain's "pleasure center" repeatedly until they were exhausted—undeterred by hunger, thirst, or pain. When researchers stimulate the nucleus accumbens of people, they smile, laugh, and report feeling pleasure, happiness, or euphoria. Later, by mapping connected areas, the researchers identified a reward circuit in the brain that involves the prefrontal cortex (the thinking part of the brain) and several underlying areas, including the nucleus accumbens and the amygdala (which triggers emotions).

The nucleus accumbens is the area of the brain that seeks pleasure and reward. That part of a teenager's brain is fairly well-developed early on.

In imaging studies that compared brain activity among children, teenagers and adults showed that teenagers showed exaggerated responses to medium and large rewards, compared to children and adults, while hardly showing any response to small rewards-unlike children and adults.

A combination of an undeveloped prefrontal cortex along with a strong desire for reward goes a long way toward explaining stereotypical teen behavior.

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