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)

Rule learning enhances structural plasticity of long range axons in frontal cortex

Rules encompass cue-action-outcome associations used to guide decisions and strategies in a specific context. Subregions of the frontal cortex including the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) and dorsomedial prefrontal cortex (dmPFC) are implicated in rule learning, although changes in structural connectivity underlying rule learning are poorly understood. We imaged OFC axonal projections to dmPFC during training in a multiple choice foraging task and used a reinforcement learning model to quantify explore–exploit strategy use and prediction error magnitude. Here we show that rule training, but not experience of reward alone, enhances OFC bouton plasticity. Baseline bouton density and gains during training correlate with rule exploitation, while bouton loss correlates with exploration and scales with the magnitude of experienced prediction errors. We conclude that rule learning sculpts frontal cortex interconnectivity and adjusts a thermostat for the explore–exploit balance.

Johnson C, Peckler H,Tai LH, Wilbrecht L., Rule learning enhances structural plasticity of long range axons in frontal cortex. Nature Communications (2016)

Rule learning enhances structural plasticity of long range axons in frontal cortex

Juvenile mice show greater flexibility in multiple choice reversal learning than adults

We hypothesized that decision-making strategies in juvenile animals, rather than being immature, are optimized to navigate the uncertainty and instability likely to be encountered in the environment at the time of the animal’s transition to independence. We tested juvenile and young adult mice on discrimination and reversal of a 4-choice and 2-choice odor-based foraging task. Juvenile mice (P26–27) learned a 4-choice discrimination and reversal faster than adults (P60–70), making fewer perseverative and distraction errors. Juvenile mice had shorter choice latencies and more focused search strategies. In both ages, performance of the task was significantly impaired by a lesion of the dorsomedial frontal cortex. Our data show that the frontal cortex can support highly flexible behavior in juvenile mice at a time coincident with weaning and first independence. The unexpected developmental decline in flexibility of behavior one month later suggests that frontal cortex based executive function may not inevitably become more flexible with age, but rather may be developmentally tuned to optimize exploratory and exploitative behavior for each life stage.

Johnson C and Wilbrecht L. 2011. Juvenile mice show greater flexibility in multiple choice reversal learning than adults. Dev Cogn Neurosci. 2011 Oct;1(4):540-51. doi: 10.1016/j.dcn.2011.05.008 (Full Text)

October 1st, 2011|Tags: , |