Adjusting behavior to changing environmental demands with development
Plasticity refers to changes in the brain that enable an organism to adapt its behavior in the face of changing environmental demands. The evolutionary role of plasticity is to provide the cognitive flexibility to learn from experiences, to monitor the world based on learned predictions, and adjust actions when these predictions are violated. Both progressive (myelination) and regressive (synaptic pruning) brain changes support this type of adaptation. Experience-driven changes in neural connections underlie the ability to learn and update thoughts and behaviors throughout life. Many cognitive and behavioral indices exhibit nonlinear life-span trajectories, suggesting the existence of specific sensitive developmental periods of heightened plasticity. We propose that age-related differences in learning capabilities and behavioral performance reflect the distinct maturational timetable of subcortical learning systems and modulatory prefrontal regions. We focus specifically on the developmental transition of adolescence, during which individuals experience difficulty flexibly adjusting their behavior when confronted with unexpected and emotionally salient events. In this article, we review the findings illustrating this phenomenon and how they vary by individual.