Adolescence typically marks a major transition to independence. Independence brings with it the need to make important decisions, such as where to forage, where to sleep, and when and where to reproduce. It also often requires a period of exploration with high tolerance for risk that is eventually followed by formation of more stable adult habits. In humans, adolescence also marks a critical moment for the development of addiction.

Anatomical studies have shown that the mammalian brain undergoes radical changes during adolescence, particularly in the frontal lobe, which integrates sensory and memory systems and coordinates flexible decision-making. We are focused on understanding the adolescent transition at the synaptic, circuit, and behavioral level. In particular, we want to understand:

How adolescent experience with drugs of abuse and natural reinforcers, such as food, alters neural circuitry and decision-making over the lifespan, and how neural plasticity can be harnessed to reverse addiction.


2-Photon Imaging

We employ in vivo 2-photon imaging to follow circuit maturation in individual mice over weeks to months. This technology allows ‘time-lapse’ measurement of the effect of age, drugs and other kinds of experiences on individual axons, dendrites, and spines.


We also use electrophysiology to investigate the capacity for plasticity in limbic and frontal circuits in rodents at different developmental stages. These experiments focus on the effect of age and neuromodulators on the capacity for change in synaptic strength at both excitatory and inhibitory synapses.


We use behavioral tests to investigate the decision rules used by rodents at different stages of development and with different experiences.

Recent Publications

Does puberty mark a transition in sensitive periods for plasticity in the associative neocortex?

  • September 3rd, 2016

Postnatal brain development is studded with sensitive periods during which experience dependent plasticity is enhanced. This enables rapid learning from environmental inputs and reorganization of cortical circuits that matches behavior with environmental contingencies. Significant headway has been achieved in characterizing and understanding sensitive period biology in primary sensory cortices, but relatively little is known about sensitive period biology in associative neocortex. One possible mediator is the onset of puberty, which marks the transition to adolescence, when animals shift their behavior toward gaining independence and exploring their social world. Puberty onset correlates with reduced behavioral plasticity in some domains and enhanced plasticity in others, and therefore may drive the transition […]

  • Long-range orbitofrontal and amygdala axons show divergent patterns of maturation in the frontal cortex across adolescence

Long-range orbitofrontal and amygdala axons show divergent patterns of maturation in the frontal cortex across adolescence

  • February 3rd, 2016

The adolescent transition from juvenile to adult is marked by anatomical and functional remodeling of brain networks. Currently, the cellular and synaptic level changes underlying the adolescent transition are only coarsely understood. Here, we use two-photon imaging to make time-lapse observations of long-range axons that innervate the frontal cortex in the living brain. We labeled cells in the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) and basolateral amygdala (BLA) and imaged their axonal afferents to the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex (dmPFC). We also imaged the apical dendrites of dmPFC pyramidal neurons. Images were taken daily in separate cohorts of juvenile (P24–P28) and young adult mice (P64–P68), ages where we have previously discovered differences in […]

Lab News

Gopnik on Maternal Separation

  • March 24th, 2016

My colleague Professor Alison Gopnik discusses the Wilbrecht Lab’s work in the Wall Street Journal this week. Gopnik’s article […]