Adaptive plasticity of NMDA receptors and dendritic spines: Implications for enhanced vulnerability of the adolescent brain to alcohol addiction

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It is now known that brain development continues into adolescence and early adulthood and is highly influenced by experience-dependent adaptive plasticity during this time. Behaviorally, this period is also characterized by increased novelty seeking and risk-taking. This heightened plasticity appears to be important in shaping behaviors and cognitive processes that contribute to proper development of an adult phenotype. However, increasing evidence has linked these same experience-dependent learning mechanisms with processes that underlie drug addiction. As such, the adolescent brain appears to be particularly susceptible to experience-dependent learning processes associated with consumption of alcohol and addictive drugs. At the level of the synapse, homeostatic changes during ethanol consumption are invoked to counter the destabilizing effects of ethanol on neural networks. This homeostatic response may be especially pronounced in the adolescent and young adult brain due to its heightened capacity to undergo experience-dependent changes, and appears to involve increased synaptic targeting of NMDA receptors. Interestingly, recent work from our lab also indicates that the enhanced synaptic localization of NMDA receptors promotes increases in the size of dendritic spines. This increase may represent a structural-based mechanism that supports the formation and stabilization of maladapted synaptic connections that, in a sense, “fix” the addictive behavior in the adolescent and young adult brain.

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