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Theses Doctoral

Experience-Dependent Development of Amygdala-Prefrontal Cortex Circuitry and Function

Gabard-Durnam, Laurel J.

Dramatic changes occur across childhood and adolescence in the activity and connectivity of an amygdala-medial prefrontal cortex circuit critical for emotional learning and regulation. However, little is currently known about how neuroplasticity within the circuit changes during development in the human. Experiences that occur during developmental sensitive periods of increased neuroplasticity have the capacity to sculpt neural function with lifelong consequences for cognition and behavior, though. This dissertation will therefore investigate when and how experience may shape amygdala-medial prefrontal cortex functional circuitry (Aim 1) and what the implications of experience-dependent circuitry development are for emotion regulation behaviors (Aim 2) across childhood, adolescence, and adulthood in three studies. Study 1 (previously published as Gabard-Durnam, Gee et al., 2016) posits and tests the long-term phasic molding hypothesis that tonic amygdala-prefrontal cortex functional connectivity, the functional architecture of the brain, is shaped during development by recurring stimulus-elicited connectivity in the circuitry using prospective examination of these connectivities’ development across childhood and adolescence. Study 1 also tests whether the ability of amygdala-prefrontal cortex stimulus-elicited connectivity to shape the amygdala-prefrontal cortex resting-state functional architecture changes across development, reflecting changing plasticity of the circuitry. Study 2 examines how the timing and duration of an early adverse experience, parental deprivation, interacts with genetically-driven differences in neuroplasticity levels indexed by the Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor val66met polymorphism to influence the developmental trajectory of amygdala-prefrontal cortex functional architecture using a population of previously-institutionalized children and adolescents and a never-institutionalized comparison sample. Study 2 further examines how the experience- and plasticity-related changes to the functional architecture influence both concurrent and future internalizing symptomatology across childhood and adolescence. Study 3 builds on the first two developmental studies by explicitly testing whether childhood is a sensitive period for medial prefrontal cortex-mediated regulatory signal learning through a retrospective design in adults. Study 3 additionally assesses the effects of developmental experience on adult emotion regulation behavior and physiology. My findings at the levels of brain circuitry, behavior, physiology, and genetics together delineate a period of increased sensitivity to the environment within prefrontal cortex-amygdala functional circuitry from infancy through childhood, modifiable by genetically-conferred variation in plasticity and the nature of the early environment. Moreover, experiences occurring during the sensitive period have consequences for future emotion regulation behavior both during development and lasting into young adulthood. Together, these findings demonstrate how experience-dependent development has enduring effects on amygdala-prefrontal cortex circuitry function and affective behavior.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Delafield, Nim
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
November 23, 2016