Adolescence as a neurobiological critical period for the development of higher-order cognition

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Abstract

The transition from adolescence to adulthood is characterized by improvements in higher-order cognitive abilities and corresponding refinements of the structure and function of the brain regions that support them. Whereas the neurobiological mechanisms that govern early development of sensory systems are well-understood, the mechanisms that drive developmental plasticity of association cortices, such as prefrontal cortex (PFC), during adolescence remain to be explained. In this review, we synthesize neurodevelopmental findings at the cellular, circuit, and systems levels in PFC and evaluate them through the lens of established critical period (CP) mechanisms that guide early sensory development. We find remarkable correspondence between these neurodevelopmental processes and the mechanisms driving CP plasticity, supporting the hypothesis that adolescent development is driven by CP mechanisms that guide the rapid development of neurobiology and cognitive ability during adolescence and their subsequent stability in adulthood. Critically, understanding adolescence as a CP not only provides a mechanism for normative adolescent development, it provides a framework for understanding the role of experience and neurobiology in the emergence of psychopathology that occurs during this developmental period.

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