When Is an Adolescent an Adult? Assessing Cognitive Control in Emotional and Nonemotional Contexts
An individual is typically considered an adult at age 18, although the age of adulthood varies for different legal and social policies. A key question is how cognitive capacities relevant to these policies change with development. The current study used an emotional go/no-go paradigm and functional neuroimaging to assess cognitive control under sustained states of negative and positive arousal in a community sample of one hundred ten 13- to 25-year-olds from New York City and Los Angeles. The results showed diminished cognitive performance under brief and prolonged negative emotional arousal in 18- to 21-year-olds relative to adults over 21. This reduction in performance was paralleled by decreased activity in fronto-parietal circuitry, implicated in cognitive control, and increased sustained activity in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, involved in emotional processes. The findings suggest a developmental shift in cognitive capacity in emotional situations that coincides with dynamic changes in prefrontal circuitry. These findings may inform age-related social policies.