Teenagers’ IQs can go up as well as down, researchers at the Welcome Trust have found.  Those of us with teens will know that they need a great deal of support during these crucial years – we’re not just a taxi service and personal chefs, but educators and counsellors too. But now there’s even more pressure, as we learn that what happens to teenagers brains in these years can profoundly affect their mental abilities. Before now it has widely been held that the IQ, or mental ability remains fairly static throughout our lives, but tests have shown that this is not always the case. The Welcome Trust tested teenagers at the age of 14 and then repeated the test four years later. The findings were surprising. Mental ability can improve as well as deteriorate it appears. The findings have far-reaching implications for how children are assessed at this stage of their education, which is so crucial for deciding on their futures.

The Study

The study was published in the leading science journal Nature and makes for interesting reading. The methodology was to take a sample of 19 boys, and 14 girls and give them a battery of tests including brain scans, verbal and non-verbal IQ tests.

Teenagers of various backgrounds in Oslo, Norw...
Teenagers of various backgrounds in Oslo, Norway. The growing diversity of northern Europe. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After the tests were repeated four years later and the result assessed it could be shown that 21% of teenagers showed a change in ‘performance IQ’(which tests special reasoning) and 39% showed changes in verbal IQ. Brain scans showed increases in verbal IQ corresponded with a growth in the density in part of the left motor cortex, which is activated during speech. Conversely, there was a rise in density of the anterior cerebellum which is associated with non-verbal IQ.

Implications

The study’s conclusions suggest that there could be hope for kids who seem to be slow starters, and also a warning for those who flower early intellectually. If they don’t stay focussed, that advantage could slip away.”We have to be careful not to write off poorer performers at an early age when in fact their IQ may improve significantly given a few more years,” said Professor Cathy Price of the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging at University College London who led the study, adding that the it showed intelligence is clearly still developing through the teenage years. Whilst the study did not seek to establish the cause of the changes in some brains, it is clear to any parent that all children develop differently from each other, and that is a normal process.

The significance of this study cannot be underestimated. Whilst it is easy to think that our teenagers are weighed down under the pressure of exams and study, perhaps there are other ways that we can be helping intelligence develop outside school. It is true that today’s school kids are loaded with school workbut there are many other ways in which the relevant areas of the brain can be kept in tip top shape other than in the classroom. Perhaps it is our job as parents to ensure that we simply provide stimulating and relaxed learning opportunities outside of school hours, rather than simply allow our teens to spend hours in front of the TV, or playing computer games. Activities undertaken as a family – a horror to most teens, it must be said – can be one useful way of achieving this. Hiking, outdoor problem solving and challenges all develop and enhance cognitive skills. Why not try setting a task like learning Survival skills for example? Creating fire is the sort of skill that takes learning, patience, problem-solving skills, research and team work. Code-breaking is another task you could set your kids, or learning chess – anything to keep the TV turned off and their brains turned on. It’s important to let our kids relax after a long day at school, but with so many temptations enabled by everything from home delivery of supermarket goods to the ability to order and have delivered by courier service almost anything they need there is a huge temptation for them to become couch potatoes and lose the ability to retain the grey cells they have developed during the day.

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Shara has been active in the scientific community for over 30 years. She started as a member of the British Association of Young Scientists at the age of 15, obtained her first science degree at 21 and her Immunology PhD at 25. She has been a research scientist and lecturer in prestigious institutions around the world [including Addenbrookes' Hospital (Cambridge), The Kennedy Institute of Rheumatology (London), The Mount Sinai Hospital (New York) and The Royal Postgraduate Medical School (London)]. Shara left mainstream in 2001 research to follow her passion of science communication and established Euroscicon Ltd in 2001 and Mums in Science in 2005

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