Teenage years are a confusing time, filled with awkward bodily changes and a need to rebel against any and every lawmaking body. Teenagers are known as risky and impulsive, a characteristic many will attribute to the complex surge of new hormones, but could something more be at work? According to a new study conducted by researchers from the University of Oregon, the University of Pennsylvania, and the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, teens are more likely to engage in risky sexual behavior due to differences in working memory. Publishing their findings in the journal Child Development, researchers believe that working memory can be the key to determining whether an adolescent may engage in early, unprotected sexual activity.

Working memory is a system in the brain that develops during childhood and adolescence; it is usually associated with an individual’s ability to use former knowledge to plan and make decisions. It has also been known to affect certain cognitive abilities, like the ability to concentrate despite distractions. It is thus no surprise that adolescents with weaker working memory had a harder time weighing the consequences of impulsive actions.

Previous studies have focused on the link between inability to control impulses and the increased likelihood of risky sexual behaviors, but this is the first to focus on the cognitive abilities associated with working memory.

“We extended previous findings by showing for the first time that individuals who have pre-existing weakness in working memory are more likely to have difficulty controlling impulsive tendencies in early to mid-adolescence,” says Professor Akita Khurana of the University of Oregon in a recent press release. “Furthermore, changes in these impulsive tendencies are associated with early and unprotected sex in adolescents, even after taking into account parents’ socioeconomic status, involvement, and monitoring of sexual behavior.”

For the study, researchers analyzed 360 adolescents ages 12 to 15, coming from a variety of racial/ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds, for two years. In order to see if weak working memory led to riskier behaviors, researchers conducted tests to establish the state of participants’ working memory from the beginning of the study. This included an examination that studied the participants’ ability to focus on a task, as well as a behavioral task that assessed the subject’s ability to delay gratification. Verbal accounts of “sensation seeking” were also given to researchers, as participants also issued self-reports about their tendency toward impulsivity. Once working memory strength was established, subjects completed self-reports of their risky sexual behavior using computer-assisted, self-interviewing techniques. Questions included when a participant first engaged in sex, and whether they used protection during sexual encounters.

What researchers found was not surprising: Adolescents with weaker working memory at the start of the study reported engaging in impulsive, risky behaviors more frequently, ultimately increasing their likelihood of early, unprotected sex. These individuals also displayed more difficulty in controlling their impulses, valuing immediate gratification over potential consequences, like STIs, or unplanned pregnancy. Researchers found this was the case across the board, even when parental socioeconomic status and racial/ethnic background was taken into account.

“Our findings identify alternative ways to intervene preventively,” said Dan Romer, research director at University of Pennsylvania. “For adolescents who have weak ability to override strong impulses, improvements in working memory may provide a pathway to greater control over risky sexual behavior. Certain parenting practices, characterized by nurturing and responsive involvement, have been shown to support the development of working memory. Interventions could aim to strengthen these types of parenting practices as well.”

Source: Romer D, Khurana A, Brodsky N, et al. Stronger Working Memory Reduces Sexual Risk Taking in Adolescents, Even After Controlling for Parental Influences. Child Development. 2015.