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High-Risk Adolescent Girls’ Neural Response to Reward Varies With Pubertal Tempo and Predicts Risky Sexual Behavior

Sat, March 23, 9:45 to 11:15am, Baltimore Convention Center, Level 3, Room 321

Integrative Statement

Sexual behavior is normative in adolescence, although certain sexual behaviors may result in more serious health risks. While the neural correlates of risky sexual behavior (RSB) are poorly understood, adolescents engaging in RSB have altered neural response to social reward in ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (vlPFC; Eckstrand et al., 2017). vlPFC activity is associated with risky decision-making (Chase et al., 2017) and may influence approach towards rewarding sexual stimuli. Because RSB is inherently social, alterations may be specific to social outcomes, or may reflect a generalized pattern of biased neural response to social and non-social reward. Earlier pubertal development is associated with greater RSB (Baams et al., 2014) and altered reward processing (e.g., Forbes et al., 2010). No studies have examined RSB as an outcome associated with pubertal maturation and neural reward circuitry. Further, no studies have employed a longitudinal design to examine pubertal development, neural response to reward, and RSB at points of greatest developmental change of each construct. The purpose of this study was to examine the impact of pubertal development on late adolescents’ RSB through its influence on neural response to non-social reward. We hypothesized that faster maturing females and earlier onset of puberty would predict differences in neural response to non-social reward. We further hypothesized that activation would predict future RSB among adolescent females.

Females (N = 103) from the Pittsburgh Girls Study, a longitudinal study of a high-risk community population (Keenan et al., 2010), completed the Pubertal Development Scale (PDS) annually from ages 9-15. Pubertal timing/tempo was modeled with a nonlinear Gompertz growth model (Campbell et al., 2012). At age 16, participants completed functional magnetic resonance imaging on a 3T Siemens Trio scanner using a standardized monetary reward task (Forbes et al., 2009) and, at age 18, completed the adolescent sexual activity index (ASAI). RSB was defined as having 2 or more sexual partners in the last month, acquired an STI in the past year, or engaged in sexual behaviors under the influence of substances (CDC, 2015). Neuroimaging analyses were completed in SPM12. Reward activation was defined by the difference between neural activity in anticipation of a win relative to a loss. Pubertal timing/tempo were regressed against reward activity (p<0.001, cluster p<0.05).

28% of participants had engaged in RSB. Faster pubertal tempo was associated with greater activation to reward anticipation in the right precentral gyrus, right medial prefrontal cortex, left ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, and left orbitofrontal cortex (p<0.05). In a logistic regression model including all significant clusters, only the left vlPFC predicted RSB at age 18. Pubertal timing was not associated with neural activity or RSB.

These data suggest that rapid hormonal changes during pubertal development may have a prolonged impact on reward circuitry and risk behaviors. Interestingly, future RSB was predicted by activation to non-social reward in the left vlPFC, a region whose activity has also been associated with RSB in response to social reward. This suggests that greater left vlPFC response to both social and non-social rewards may indicate a vulnerability to reward-seeking behavior.


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