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Prog Neurobiol. 2005 Jun;76(3):189-211.

Developmental regulation of cognitive abilities: modified composition of a molecular switch turns on associative learning.

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Institute of Neuroscience, 1254 University of Oregon, Eugene, OR 97403-1254, USA.


N-methyl-D-aspartate receptors (NMDARs) act as molecular coincidence detectors and allow for association or dissociation between pre- and postsynaptic neurons. NMDA receptors are central to remodeling of synaptic connections during postnatal development and associative learning abilities in adults. The ability to remodel neural networks is altered during postnatal development, possibly due to a change in the composition of NMDARs. That is, as forebrain systems (and cerebellum) develop, synaptic NR2B-containing NMDARs (NR2B-NMDARs) are replaced by NR2A-containing NMDARs (NR2A-NMDARs) and NR2B-NMDARs move to extrasynaptic sites. During the initial phase of the switch, synapses contain both NR2A- and NR2B-NMDARs and both long-term potentiation and long-term depression are enhanced. As NMDAR subunit expression decreases and NR2A-NMDARs come to predominate in the synapse, channel function and synaptic plasticity are reduced, and remodeling ability dissipates. The end result is a balance of plasticity and stability that is optimal for information processing and storage. Associative learning abilities involving different sensory modalities emerge sequentially, in accordance with synaptic maturation in related cortical and underlying brain structures. Thus, developmental alterations in NMDAR composition that occur at different ages in various brain structures may explain the protracted nature of the maturation of various associative learning abilities.

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