Annual Research Review: New frontiers in developmental neuropharmacology: can long-term therapeutic effects of drugs be optimized through carefully timed early intervention?

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Our aim is to present a working model that may serve as a valuable heuristic to predict enduring effects of drugs when administered during development. Our primary tenet is that a greater understanding of neurodevelopment can lead to improved treatment that intervenes early in the progression of a given disorder and prevents symptoms from manifesting. The immature brain undergoes significant changes during the transitions between childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. Such changes in innervation, neurotransmitter levels, and their respective signaling mechanisms have profound and observable changes on typical behavior, but also increase vulnerability to psychiatric disorders when the maturational process goes awry. Given the remarkable plasticity of the immature brain to adapt to its external milieu, preventive interventions may be possible. We intend for this review to initiate a discussion of how currently used psychotropic agents can influence brain development. Drug exposure during sensitive periods may have beneficial long-term effects, but harmful delayed consequences may be possible as well. Regardless of the outcome, this information needs to be used to improve or develop alternative approaches for the treatment of childhood disorders. With this framework in mind, we present what is known about the effects of stimulants, antidepressants, and antipsychotics on brain maturation (including animal studies that use more clinically-relevant dosing paradigms or relevant animal models). We endeavor to provocatively set the stage for altering treatment approaches for improving mental health in non-adult populations.

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