The brain undergoes continual change throughout development and adolescence. Early adulthood is a common time for the onset of neuropsychiatric disorders like schizophrenia. The dopamine system, which is necessary for thinking clearly and making decisions, starts to malfunction at this stage of development.
Researchers at the University of Rochester's Del Monte Institute for Neuroscience are getting closer to identifying a potential target for treating neuropsychiatric illnesses like schizophrenia and autism at this critical period of development, which might influence brain circuitry throughout adulthood.
"Brain development is a lengthy process, and many neuronal systems have critical windows--key times when brain areas are malleable and undergoing final maturation steps," said Rianne Stowell, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow in the Wang Lab at the University of Rochester Medical Center and co-first author on research out in the journal eLife. "By identifying these windows, we can target interventions to these time periods and possibly change the course of a disease by rescuing the structural and behavioral deficits caused by these disorders."
Researchers targeted underperforming neurons in the dopamine system that connect to the frontal cortex in mice. This circuitry is essential in higher cognitive processing and decision-making. They found that stimulating the cells that provide dopamine to the frontal cortex strengthened this circuit and rescued structural deficiencies in the brain that cause long-term symptoms. Previous research from the Wang Lab identified that this specific arm of the dopamine system was flexible in the adolescent brain but not in adults. This most recent research used this window for plasticity in the system as an opportunity for therapeutic intervention.
"These findings suggest that increasing the activity of the adolescent dopaminergic circuitry can rescue existing deficits in the circuit and that this effect can be long-lasting as these changes persist into adulthood," Stowell said. "If we can target the right windows in development and understand the signals at play, we can develop treatments that change the course of these brain disorders." (ANI)