Parallel maturation of goal-directed behavior and dopaminergic systems during adolescence

J Neurosci. 2012 Nov 14;32(46):16223-32. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.3080-12.2012.


Adolescence is a crucial developmental period characterized by specific behaviors reflecting the immaturity of decision-making abilities. However, the maturation of precise cognitive processes and their neurobiological correlates at this period remain poorly understood. Here, we investigate whether a differential developmental time course of dopamine (DA) pathways during late adolescence could explain the emergence of particular executive and motivational components of goal-directed behavior. First, using a contingency degradation protocol, we demonstrate that adolescent rats display a specific deficit when the causal relationship between their actions and their consequences is changed. When the rats become adults, this deficit disappears. In contrast, actions of adolescents remain sensitive to outcome devaluation or to the influence of a pavlovian-conditioned stimulus. This aspect of cognitive maturation parallels a delayed development of the DA system, especially the mesocortical pathway involved in action adaptation to rule changes. Unlike in striatal and nucleus accumbens regions, DA fibers and DA tissue content continue to increase in the medial prefrontal cortex from juvenile to adult age. Moreover, a sustained overexpression of DA receptors is observed in the prefrontal region until the end of adolescence. These findings highlight the relationship between the emergence of specific cognitive processes, in particular the adaptation to changes in action consequences, and the delayed maturation of the mesocortical DA pathway. Similar developmental processes in humans could contribute to the adolescent vulnerability to the emergence of several psychiatric disorders characterized by decision-making deficits.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Behavior, Animal / physiology*
  • Conditioning, Classical / physiology
  • Dopamine / physiology*
  • Dopaminergic Neurons / physiology
  • Goals
  • Immunohistochemistry
  • Learning / physiology
  • Neostriatum / cytology
  • Neostriatum / physiology
  • Nerve Fibers / physiology
  • Neurotransmitter Agents / metabolism
  • Nucleus Accumbens / cytology
  • Nucleus Accumbens / physiology
  • Rats
  • Rats, Long-Evans
  • Real-Time Polymerase Chain Reaction
  • Receptors, Dopamine / physiology
  • Sensation / physiology
  • Transfer, Psychology / physiology


  • Neurotransmitter Agents
  • Receptors, Dopamine
  • Dopamine