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Dev Psychopathol. 1997 Fall;9(4):907-29.

Emergent properties of neural systems: how focal molecular neurobiological alterations can affect behavior.

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  • 1Biological Psychiatry Branch, National Institute of Mental Health, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, MD 20892-1272, USA.


Whereas the basic wiring diagram of the mammalian central nervous system (CNS) is genetically preprogramed, its fine tuning throughout different phases of infancy, childhood, and adulthood are highly experience dependent. The potential neurobiological mechanisms and behavioral effects of such experience-dependent neuroplasticity as a function of stage of development are outlined. A basic thesis of this paper is that mechanisms involved in neuronal learning and memory, such as long-term potentiation (LTP) and long-term depression (LTD), are used and reused not only in the sculpting of the CNS in the initial establishment of connections, but also again in the molding of personality and behavior based on experience. It is postulated that for higher order processes such as emotional memory, such neuroplasticity is occurring at increasingly larger numbers of synapses and cell assemblies with increasing mechanistic complexity and self-organization. Just as overexcitation or deprivation can profoundly affect the development of the visual system, it is postulated that similar phenomena exist in the neural substrates of emotional and cognitive development. In addition, a secondary and potentially more widespread series of ramifications are likely to occur in the higher order and integrative systems, such as secondary and tertiary cortical association areas and prefrontal cortex that become the ultimate integrators of emotion and experience, leading to subsequent actions and plans for the future. This process is by definition, plastic, and such remodeling is likely to take place not only at the level of the single synapse, but also at higher levels of network integration of which we currently have only the barest glimpse. Nonetheless, beginning to discuss the neurobiology of such self-organizing plastic systems may begin to change our conceptual approaches to psychopathology and open new avenues of therapeutics for the major psychiatric illnesses that are critically dependent on such higher order learning and memory mechanisms.

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