Experience during adolescence shapes brain development: From synapses and networks to normal and pathological behavior

Diana Dow-Edwards*, Frank P. MacMaster, Bradley S. Peterson, Raymond Niesink, Susan Andersen, B. R. Braams

*Corresponding author for this work

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Adolescence is a period of dramatic neural reorganization creating a period of vulnerability and the possibility for the development of psychopathology. The maturation of various neural circuits during adolescence depends, to a large degree, on one's experiences both physical and psychosocial. This occurs through a process of plasticity which is the structural and functional adaptation of the nervous system in response to environmental demands, physiological changes and experiences. During adolescence, this adaptation proceeds upon a backdrop of structural and functional alterations imparted by genetic and epigenetic factors and experiences both prior to birth and during the postnatal period. Plasticity entails an altering of connections between neurons through long-term potentiation (LTP) (which alters synaptic efficiency), synaptogenesis, axonal sprouting, dendritic remodeling, neurogenesis and recruitment (Skaper et al., 2017). Although most empirical evidence for plasticity derives from studies of the sensory systems, recent studies have suggested that during adolescence, social, emotional, and cognitive experiences alter the structure and function of the networks subserving these domains of behavior. Each of these neural networks exhibits heightened vulnerability to experience-dependent plasticity during the sensitive periods which occur in different circuits and different brain regions at specific periods of development. This report will summarize some examples of adaptation which occur during adolescence and some evidence that the adolescent brain responds differently to stimuli compared to adults and children. This symposium, “Experience during adolescence shapes brain development: from synapses and networks to normal and pathological behavior” occurred during the Developmental Neurotoxicology Society/Teratology Society Annual Meeting in Clearwater Florida, June 2018. The sections will describe the maturation of the brain during adolescence as studied using imaging technologies, illustrate how plasticity shapes the structure of the brain using examples of pathological conditions such as Tourette's' syndrome and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and a review of the key molecular systems involved in this plasticity and how some commonly abused substances alter brain development. The role of stimulants used in the treatment of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in the plasticity of the reward circuit is then described. Lastly, clinical data promoting an understanding of peer-influences on risky behavior in adolescents provides evidence for the complexity of the roles that peers play in decision making, a phenomenon different from that in the adult. Imaging studies have revealed that activation of the social network by the presence of peers at times of decision making is unique in the adolescent. Since normal brain development relies on experiences which alter the functional and structural connections between cells within circuits and networks to ultimately alter behavior, readers can be made aware of the myriad of ways normal developmental processes can be hijacked. The vulnerability of developing adolescent brain places the adolescent at risk for the development of a life time of abnormal behaviors and mental disorders.

Original languageEnglish
Article number106834
JournalNeurotoxicology and Teratology
Publication statusPublished - 1 Nov 2019
Externally publishedYes


This symposium was funded by the National Science Foundation Grant # BCS 1821940 . FM acknowledges support from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), the Branch Out Neurological Foundation (BONF), and the Addiction and Mental Health Strategic Clinical Network (AMH SCN). SA acknowledges support of National Institutes of Health Grants DA-10543 and DA-026485 . B.R.B acknowledges funding from a Rubicon grant (NWO Rubicon 446-16-001 ) from the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO).

FundersFunder number
Branch Out Neurological Foundation
National Science Foundation1821940, BCS 1821940
National Institutes of HealthDA-026485, DA-10543
Canadian Institutes of Health Research
Nederlandse Organisatie voor Wetenschappelijk OnderzoekRubicon 446-16-001


    • Adolescent brain development
    • Brain/behavior relationships
    • MRI/fMRI
    • Plasticity


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