Psychological Medicine

Invited Review

Triadic model of the neurobiology of motivated behavior in adolescence

a1 Section of Developmental and Affective Neuroscience, National Institute of Mental Health, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, MD, USA

Article author query
ernst m   [PubMed][Google Scholar] 
pine ds   [PubMed][Google Scholar] 
hardin m   [PubMed][Google Scholar] 


Background. Risk-taking behavior is a major cause of morbidity and mortality in adolescence. In the context of decision theory and motivated (goal-directed) behavior, risk-taking reflects a pattern of decision-making that favors the selection of courses of action with uncertain and possibly harmful consequences. We present a triadic, neuroscience systems-based model of adolescent decision-making.

Method. We review the functional role and neurodevelopmental findings of three key structures in the control of motivated behavior, i.e. amygdala, nucleus accumbens, and medial/ventral prefrontal cortex. We adopt a cognitive neuroscience approach to motivated behavior that uses a temporal fragmentation of a generic motivated action. Predictions about the relative contributions of the triadic nodes to the three stages of a motivated action during adolescence are proposed.

Results. The propensity during adolescence for reward/novelty seeking in the face of uncertainty or potential harm might be explained by a strong reward system (nucleus accumbens), a weak harm-avoidant system (amygdala), and/or an inefficient supervisory system (medial/ventral prefrontal cortex). Perturbations in these systems may contribute to the expression of psychopathology, illustrated here with depression and anxiety.

Conclusions. A triadic model, integrated in a temporally organized map of motivated behavior, can provide a helpful framework that suggests specific hypotheses of neural bases of typical and atypical adolescent behavior.

(Published Online September 13 2005)

c1 Section of Developmental and Affective Neuroscience, Mood and Anxiety Disorders Program, NIMH/NIH/HHS, 15K North Drive, Bethesda, MD 20892, USA. (Email: