Stronger Working Memory and Reduced Sexual Risk-Taking in Adolescents

Teenagers vary substantially in their ability to control impulses and regulate their behavior. Adolescents who have difficulty with impulse control may be more prone to risky sexual behavior, with serious consequences such as sexually transmitted diseases and unintended pregnancies. A new study has found that individual differences in working memory can predict both early sexual activity and unprotected sexual involvement during adolescence.

Working memory — the system in the brain that allows individuals to draw on and use information to plan and make decisions – develops through childhood and adolescence. The new study, published in the journal Child Development, found that adolescents with weaker working memory have more difficulty controlling their impulsive urges and considering the consequences of their behaviors.

The study was carried out by researchers at the University of Oregon, the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, and the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

Prior research in this field has linked impulsivity and lack of self-control to risky behaviors during adolescence. This study builds on earlier findings, focusing instead on cognitive abilities, such as the ability to concentrate on tasks and filter out distractions, which rely on working memory.

“We extended previous findings by showing for the first time that individuals who have pre-existing weakness in working memory are more likely to have difficulty controlling impulsive tendencies in early to mid-adolescence,” said Atika Khurana, assistant professor of counseling psychology and human services at the University of Oregon, who led the study. Added Khurana, who also is a distinguished research fellow at the Annenberg Public Policy Center: “Furthermore, changes in these impulsive tendencies are associated with early and unprotected sex in adolescents, even after taking into account parents’ socioeconomic status, involvement, and monitoring of sexual behavior.”

Dan Romer, research director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center and lead investigator on the longitudinal project on which the study is based, said, “Our findings identify alternative ways to intervene preventively. For adolescents who have weak ability to override strong impulses, improvements in working memory may provide a pathway to greater control over risky sexual behavior.

Additional authors include Laura M. Betancourt, Nancy L. Brodsky, Joan M. Giannetta and Hallam Hurt of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

For the full press release, click here. The study can be found here.