Working memory, a system in the brain that gives the person the ability to draw on and use information, develops through childhood and teenage years. A new study reveals its impact on teenagers' ability to control their impulses and sexual behavior.

For the new study published in the journal Child Development on June 17, Atika Khurana, from the University of Oregon, and colleagues followed 360 adolescents who were between 12 and 15 years old for a period of two years to look at the effects of working memory on changes in the participants' self-control and sexually risky behavior.

The researchers evaluated the youth's working memory by assessing their ability to focus on information relevant to a task. The participants' impulsivity, on the other hand, was measured using a behavioral task that looked at their ability to delay gratification and self-report their likelihood to act without thinking and seek excitement.

The participants provided reports of their risky sexual involvement such as the age when they had their first intercourse and whether or not they were into unprotected sex using privacy enhancing and computer assisted self-interview techniques.

The researchers found that the participants with weaker working memory at the start of the study were more likely to report of impulsive tendencies during the follow-up period and this increased their tendencies to engage in early and unprotected sexual activity.

The adolescents with weak working memory were also found to have increased difficulty in regulating dominant impulses such as the desire to engage in sex outweighed the risks of facing longer-term consequences such as unplanned pregnancy and contracting sexually transmitted infections.

"Stronger WM predicted reduced involvement in sexual risk taking at follow-up, effects channeled through changes in impulsivity dimensions of "acting without thinking" and "inability to delay gratification," the researchers reported in their study, adding parental variables such as the parents' socioeconomic status and their involvement in their child's life were associated with the impulsivity and risky behavior of teenagers albeit the effects of working memory held with or without these influences.

"Parental variables had a protective influence on adolescent impulsivity and risk involvement, but the effects of WM operated independently of parental influences."

Study researcher Daniel Romer, from the University of Pennsylvania, said that certain parenting practices are known to support the development of their children's working memory such as those marked by nurturing and responsive involvement.

Photo: Courtney Carmody | Flickr

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