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

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 from juvenile to adolescent brain function. Pubertal onset is also occurring earlier in developed nations, particularly in unserved populations, and earlier puberty is associated with vulnerability for substance use, depression and anxiety. In the present article we review the evidence that supports a causal role for puberty in developmental changes in the function and neurobiology of the associative neocortex. We also propose a model for how pubertal hormones may regulate sensitive period plasticity in associative neocortex. We conclude that the evidence suggests puberty onset may play a causal role in some aspects of associative neocortical development, but that further research that manipulates puberty and measures gonadal hormones is required. We argue that further work of this kind is urgently needed to determine how earlier puberty may negatively impact human health and learning potential.

David J. Piekarski, Carolyn Johnson, Josiah R. Boivin, A. Wren Thomas, Wan Chen Lin, Kristen Delevich, Ezequiel Galarce and Linda Wilbrecht, Does puberty mark a transition in sensitive periods for plasticity in the associative neocortex?, Brain Research, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.brainres.2016.08.042

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

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 dmPFC dependent decision-making. Dendritic spines were pruned across this peri-adolescent period, while BLA and OFC afferents followed alternate developmental trajectories. OFC boutons showed no decrease in density, but did show a decrease in daily bouton gain and loss with age. BLA axons showed an increase in both bouton density and daily bouton gain at the later age, suggesting a delayed window of enhanced plasticity. Our findings reveal projection specific maturation of synaptic structures within a single frontal region and suggest that stabilization is a more general characteristic of maturation than pruning.

Johnson CM, Loucks A, Peckler H, Thomas AW, Janak P, Wilbrecht L. (in press) Long-range orbitofrontal and amygdala axons show divergent patterns of maturation in the frontal cortex across adolescence. Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience (2016)

Early maternal separation impacts cognitive flexibility at the age of first independence in mice

Early life adversity is associated with increased risk for mental and physical health problems, including substance abuse. Changes in neural development caused by early life insults could cause or complicate these conditions. Maternal separation (MS) is a model of early adversity for rodents. Clear effects of MS have been shown on behavioral flexibility in rats, but studies of effects of MS on cognition in mice have been mixed. We hypothesized that previous studies focused on adult mice may have overlooked a developmental transition point when juvenile mice exhibit greater flexibility in reversal learning. Here, using a 4-choice reversal learning task we find that early MS leads to decreased flexibility in post-weaning juvenile mice, but no significant effects in adults. In a further study of voluntary ethanol consumption, we found that adult mice that had experienced MS showed greater cumulative 20% ethanol consumption in an intermittent access paradigm compared to controls. Our data confirm that the MS paradigm can reduce cognitive flexibility in mice and may enhance risk for substance abuse. We discuss possible interpretations of these data as stress-related impairment or adaptive earlier maturation in response to an adverse environment.

A. Wren Thomas, Natalia Caporale, Claudia Wu, Linda Wilbrecht, Early maternal separation impacts cognitive flexibility at the age of first independence in mice, Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience, Available online 19 October 2015, ISSN 1878-9293, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.dcn.2015.09.005.
(http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S187892931530030X)
Keywords: Development; Reversal; Prefrontal; Perseveration; Stress; Neglect