Drugs & Adolescent Development

Adolescence is a critical period to develop addiction. Adolescence is also a period when the prefrontal cortex, a brain region implicated in reward, motivation, and cognition, is still maturing. One of the research goals of our lab is to understand how initiation of drug use in adolescence, in comparison to adulthood, confers increased vulnerability to developing addiction. We have identified the netrin-1 receptor DCC (deleted in colorectal cancer) as the first known mediator of adolescent prefrontal cortex development. DCC signaling determines the extent of dopamine innervation to the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) specifically during adolescence, and in turn organizes local circuitry and behavior. We have also found that expression of DCC receptors by dopamine neurons can be altered by exposure to drugs of abuse in adolescence. Our group is now working to determine how drugs of abuse alter DCC-dependent mPFC development and to identify the behavioral consequences of altered mPFC development. We conduct molecular, neurochemical, neuroanatomical and behavioral experiments in mice exposed to drugs of abuse in adolescence or adulthood. We hope that this work will provide information about the molecular mechanisms underlying individual differences in susceptibility to psychopathology, particularly addiction.