Neural plasticity and behavior – sixty years of conceptual advances

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Abstract

This brief review summarizes 60 years of conceptual advances that have demonstrated a role for active changes in neuronal connectivity as a controller of behavior and behavioral change. Seminal studies in the first phase of the six-decade span of this review firmly established the cellular basis of behavior – a concept that we take for granted now, but which was an open question at the time. Hebbian plasticity, including long-term potentiation and long-term depression, was then discovered as being important for local circuit refinement in the context of memory formation and behavioral change and stabilization in the mammalian central nervous system. Direct demonstration of plasticity of neuronal circuit function in vivo, for example, hippocampal neurons forming place cell firing patterns, extended this concept. However, additional neurophysiologic and computational studies demonstrated that circuit development and stabilization additionally relies on non-Hebbian, homoeostatic, forms of plasticity, such as synaptic scaling and control of membrane intrinsic properties. Activity-dependent neurodevelopment was found to be associated with cell-wide adjustments in post-synaptic receptor density, and found to occur in conjunction with synaptic pruning. Pioneering cellular neurophysiologic studies demonstrated the critical roles of transmembrane signal transduction, NMDA receptor regulation, regulation of neural membrane biophysical properties, and back-propagating action potential in critical time-dependent coincidence detection in behavior-modifying circuits. Concerning the molecular mechanisms underlying these processes, regulation of gene transcription was found to serve as a bridge between experience and behavioral change, closing the ‘nature versus nurture’ divide. Both active DNA (de)methylation and regulation of chromatin structure have been validated as crucial regulators of gene transcription during learning. The discovery of protein synthesis dependence on the acquisition of behavioral change was an influential discovery in the neurochemistry of behavioral modification. Higher order cognitive functions such as decision making and spatial and language learning were also discovered to hinge on neural plasticity mechanisms. The role of disruption of these processes in intellectual disabilities, memory disorders, and drug addiction has recently been clarified based on modern genetic techniques, including in the human.

The area of neural plasticity and behavior has seen tremendous advances over the last six decades, with many of those advances being specifically in the neurochemistry domain. This review provides an overview of the progress in the area of neuroplasticity and behavior over the life-span of the Journal of Neurochemistry. To organize the broad literature base, the review collates progress into fifteen broad categories identified as ‘conceptual advances’, as viewed by the author. The fifteen areas are delineated in the figure above.

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