Puberty is a stage that everybody gets to go through. Essentially, this stage leads to the development of particular bodily features that mark the onset of adolescence. Some of these features include:
- Facial hair for boys
- Menstruation cycle for girls
- Development of breast tissue in girls
- Increased muscle mass in boys
Now, the main question becomes, why do these changes occur? Typically, your body’s functioning is majorly regulated by the endocrine system that uses hormones to maintain the communication loops. One of these hormones is testosterone.
How sex hormones affect brain
There are two main sex hormones, namely, testosterone and estrogen. In most cases, you will find these two hormones grouped as gonadal hormones or sex steroids. Essentially, this classification is due to the production areas – testes in men and ovaries in women.
Usually, sex hormones exist in a person way before they are born. However, on approaching puberty, the hormone levels increase. From the various studies conducted by scientists, these hormones affect the nervous system.
For instance, apart from creating an increase in the sex drive, testosterone can make your voice deeper, while estrogen affects your memory and learning ability.
Essentially, the increased testosterone or estrogen levels lead to very fundamental changes in the brain’s anatomy. Studies on humans and animals show that the hormones unleashed during adolescence bind themselves to various receptors on the brain cells.
This causes altered activity in the cells and resultant brain circuitry. To understand how these hormones affect the brain’s functioning, neuroscientists have decided to conduct more studies.
The Adult Brain
During puberty, the secretion of the sex hormones leads to the development of communications signal structures in the brain. In essence, when the hormones get to the brain, they stimulate the growth of wire-like extension of brain neurons.
These extensions, also known as axons, help the brain develop a more extensive communications network with other neurons. During adolescence, the axons are observed to sprout rapidly in major areas of your brain.
Apart from promoting the growth of axons and a more extensive neural network, testosterone and estrogen are responsible for producing white matter. White matter is the fatty material in your brain that contains the axons and other support cells glia. The fatty material is called myelin.
Essentially, the fatty material is created by glia to protect the axons and increase the speed of neural transmission. As you grow up, the growth of the white matter is commonly referred to as myelination, leads to increased cognitive abilities.
In addition, myelination is critical for complete mental transformation during puberty since it gives your axons the ability to process and transmit signals. Essentially, myelinated axons are approximately 100 times more efficient and faster than unmyelinated axons.
According to scientists, this is the most critical growth process in the human brain since it better handles complex and challenging mental situations. In a nutshell, hormone-initiated white matter growth helps your brain mature and improve its information communication capacity. This is how you can process information that involves memories, emotions, and your surroundings at ease.
Promoting Brain Efficiency
Creating brain circuitry and communications connections is not the only effect sex hormones have on your brain cells. With more connections arising from the sprouting of axons, your brain may become redundant due to the replication of information paths. To prevent this, the sex hormones also cut out some connection points. This is typically referred to as synaptic pruning.
A synapse is the point of contact that exists between two neurons. Typically, weak synapses are pruned out while the stronger ones are myelinated to strengthen them further. Studies have indicated that pruning occurs earlier in life and levels off during adulthood. Researchers believe that the process is undertaken to maintain efficiency in the adult brain-machine.
The adult brain is evolving in a variety of ways. However, understanding the particular parts of the brain changing with respect to sex hormones is the challenge. According to research on primates and rodents, some parts of the brain have more receptors for testosterone and estrogen than others.
For instance, sex hormones increase the brain’s ability to handle deeper thinking and engage with nuanced and complex issues. The studies also indicate that axons are developing and growing in regions such as the amygdala, which is responsible for emotions.
Strengthened communication between this part and other parts of the brain leads to a better ability to handle complex emotions during and after adolescence. Another part of the brain that gets a boost from these hormones is the hippocampus – responsible for memory. During puberty, more cells grow in this area leading to better knowledge retention and superior brain capacity.
Finally, studies have indicated that the information processing area of the brain (prefrontal cortex) also gets to undergo radical changes. Essentially, the prefrontal cortex is responsible for processing, sorting, and handling input from all the other parts of the brain.
With adolescence comes a more mature brain and other bodily changes. These changes are caused by increased levels of sex hormones, testosterone, and estrogen.