Developmental Differences in Reward Sensitivity and Sensation Seeking in Adolescence: Testing Sex-Specific Associations With Gonadal Hormones and Pubertal Development

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Abstract

Sensation seeking has been found to increase, on average, from childhood to adolescence. Developmental scientists have hypothesized that this change could be driven by the rise of gonadal hormones at puberty, which affect reward-related processing in the brain. In a large, age-heterogeneous, population-based sample of adolescents and young adults (N = 810; ages 13–20 years), we tested for sex-specific associations between age, self-reported pubertal development, gonadal hormones (estradiol and testosterone) as measured in saliva, reward sensitivity as measured by a multivariate battery of in-laboratory tasks (including the Iowa gambling task, balloon analogue risk task, and stoplight task), and self-reported sensation seeking. Reward sensitivity was more strongly associated with sensation seeking in males than females. For both males and females, reward sensitivity was unrelated to age but was higher among those who reported more advanced pubertal development. There were significant sex differences in the effects of self-reported pubertal development on sensation seeking, with a positive association evident in males but a negative association in females. Moreover, gonadal hormones also showed diverging associations with sensation seeking—positive with testosterone but negative with estradiol. Overall, the results indicate that sensation seeking among adolescents and young adults depends on a complex constellation of developmental influences that operate via sex-specific mechanisms.

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