Juvenile play experience primes neurons in the medial prefrontal cortex to be more responsive to later experiences

Juvenile play behavior in rats promotes later behavioral flexibility and appears to do so by modifying the neural systems that regulate the animal’s response to unexpected challenges. For example, the experience of play has been shown to prune the dendritic arbor of the cells in the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), part of the brain’s executive control system. The objective of the present study was to determine if the play-induced changes in the mPFC promotes greater plasticity to experiences later in life. In order to test this possibility, exposure to nicotine was used as the secondary experience given later in life, as it has been shown to produce later changes to the morphology of mPFC pyramidal neurons. Animals were either paired with three same-sex peers (play condition) or one adult (no play condition) during their juvenile period. As young adults, half of the rats from each condition were exposed to repeated injections of nicotine and the other half to injections of saline. The neural plasticity of the mPFC was measured by changes in length and branching of dendrites. Neural changes induced separately by play and by nicotine were consistent with previously published findings. The novel finding was that the cells in the mPFC exhibit a greater response to exposure to nicotine if the rats first had play experience. These findings suggest that juvenile play experiences enhance the plasticity of some neural systems. © 2013 Elsevier Ireland Ltd.

Juvenile play behavior in rats promotes later behavioral flexibility and appears to do so by modifying the neural systems that regulate the animal’s response to unexpected challenges. For example, the experience of play has been shown to prune the dendritic arbor of the cells in the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), part of the brain’s executive control system. The objective of the present study was to determine if the play-induced changes in the mPFC promotes greater plasticity to experiences later in life. In order to test this possibility, exposure to nicotine was used as the secondary experience given later in life, as it has been shown to produce later changes to the morphology of mPFC pyramidal neurons. Animals were either paired with three same-sex peers (play condition) or one adult (no play condition) during their juvenile period. As young adults, half of the rats from each condition were exposed to repeated injections of nicotine and the other half to injections of saline. The neural plasticity of the mPFC was measured by changes in length and branching of dendrites. Neural changes induced separately by play and by nicotine were consistent with previously published findings. The novel finding was that the cells in the mPFC exhibit a greater response to exposure to nicotine if the rats first had play experience. These findings suggest that juvenile play experiences enhance the plasticity of some neural systems. © 2013 Elsevier Ireland Ltd.

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