Tuesday, January 29, 2002

PBS explores brains of teens

        Here's big news for many parents: Teen-agers have brains. If you don't believe me, watch PBS this week.

        Public TV devotes two hours to researchers examining teen-agers' brains. (Do you have a couple of kids you'd like them to look at?)

        The third part of PBS' five-week The Secret Life of the Brain examines “The Teen-age Brain: A World of Their Own” (9 p.m. today, Channels 48, 54, 16).

        Then Frontline goes “Inside the Teen-age Brain” with the help of Enquirer cartoonist Jim Borgman and his Jeremy character from “Zits,” on Thursday (9 p.m., Channels 48, 54, 16).

        Tonight's Secret Life focuses on the risks teens face, from addiction to drugs and alcohol to schizophrenia, as the front cortex of the brain develops during adolescence.

        The show profiles two schizophrenics — Courtney, 19, who has gained control of her life with medication, and Sabrina, 14, who has not responded to medicine. It also talks to teens at a drug treatment center.

        Frontline looks at scientific reasons for more normal teen-age behavior — sleepiness, isolation, rebellion, mood swings — and only briefly touches on risky behavior.

        “The adolescent brain is far more flexible, far more adaptable than we had ever realized before,” says Dr. Jay Geidd, a National Institutes of Mental Health neuroscientist who appears in both documentaries. “There's enormous potential for change, and not just change in psychological dimensions, but actually physical anatomical changes.”

        That explains why parents of teens think their kids have been invaded by another being, or have lost their brains.

        Parents need to “recognize that this is just another phase of child development,” says Charles Nelson, a University of Minnesota neuroscientist and child psychologist.

        “Even though their children may be shouting more, and talking back more, and kicking, and throwing temper tantrums, it's just a temper tantrum in a 5-foot-tall body, instead of an 18-inch-long body,” Mr. Nelson says.

        Frontline also shows a Canadian professor's experiments revealing that teens who get the most sleep have better cognitive abilities.

        “The special worry with teen-agers is that they are learning a tremendous amount, and trying to keep up with their peers,” says Carlyle Smith of Trent University. “They're often stretching almost to the limit of what they can do. And sleeping is one of the best ways they can . . . stay abreast of what's going on. Let 'em do it (sleep).”

        Punctuating the points on the Frontline program are Mr. Borgman's “Zits” cartoons. The Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist explains Jeremy's dilemma this way:

        “Jeremy is 15 years old. He can't drive. He's still stuck within the orbit of his parents' rules. And they are still a much bigger factor in his life than he would like, so there's that moment — before he can get out of the house and drive off on his own — when there is the maximum tension in the house,” he says.

        Parents trying to nurture their young children into strong, independent, smart adults are surprised when the kids turn into alien beings as teens.

        “Separation is the whole job of teen-agers,” Mr. Borgman says. “I have a friend who says that teen-agers plant their feet firmly on your chest and launch themselves off into their own life. And that's just how it feels, usually.”

        Bush delayed: For the second straight year, WCET-TV (Channel 48) will not provide live coverage of President George Bush's State of the Union address at 9 p.m. today. Channel 48 instead airs The Secret Life of the Brain and World of National Geographic.

        Jim Lehrer's coverage of the president's speech and Democratic Party response will air at 11 p.m.

        “We are offering our viewers alternative programming, since everyone else is airing the speech at 9 p.m.,” says Grace Hill, Channel 48 program director.

        “It was a tough decision to make, but we did it last year and it seemed to work well,” she says. “We felt that if we played it at 11, it would be available to people who were out and not able to see it earlier.”

        Leno lines: From Jay Leno's Tonight Show monologue:

        “Amtrak announced it's offering Internet service on trains. So now your computer won't only crash — it will roll down an embankment too.”

        “Enron has gotten out of the energy business. They're in a new business now: Confetti.”

        SAG nominations: Screen Actors Guild President Melissa Gilbert announces the SAG Awards nominations today (8:30-9:30 a.m., E! Entertainment Television). The eighth annual SAG Awards air March 10 (8 p.m., TNT).

        E-mail jkiesewetter@enquirer.com. Past columns at Enquirer.com/columns/kiese


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