Much of neuroscientist Shannon Gourleyâ€™s work focuses on the idea that adolescence is a vulnerable time for the developing brain. She and graduate student Lauren DePoy recently published a paper in Frontiers in Pharmacology showing that in adolescent rodents, cocaine exposure can cause the loss of dendritic arbors in part of the brain important for decision-making.
The researchers examined neurons in the orbitofrontal cortex, a region of the brain thought to be important for â€œlinking reward to hedonic experience.â€ It was known that stimulants such as cocaine can cause the loss of dendritic spines: small protrusions that are critical for communication and interaction between neurons.
â€œTo make an analogy, itâ€™s like a tree losing some of its leaves,â€ Gourley writes. â€œLaurenâ€™s work shows for the first time that if cocaine is given in adolescence, it can cause the loss of dendrite arbors â€“ as if entire branches are being cut from the tree.â€
The mice are exposed to cocaine over the course of five days in early adolescence, and then their behavior is studied in adulthood. This level of cocaine exposure leads to impairments in instrumental task reversal, a test where mice need to change their habits (which chamber they poke their noses into) to continue receiving food pellets.
The findings suggestÂ a partial explanation for the increased risk of dependence in people who start using cocaine during adolescence.