Adolescent brain maturation is characterized by the emergence of executive function mediated by the prefrontal cortex, e.g., goal planning, inhibition of impulsive behavior and set shifting. Synaptic pruning of excitatory contacts is the signature morphologic event of late brain maturation during adolescence. Mounting evidence suggests that glutamate receptor-mediated synaptic plasticity, in particular long-term depression (LTD), is important for elimination of synaptic contacts in brain development. This review examines the possibility (1) that LTD mechanisms are enhanced in the prefrontal cortex during adolescence due to ongoing synaptic pruning in this late developing cortex and (2) that enhanced synaptic plasticity in the prefrontal cortex represents a key molecular substrate underlying the critical period for maturation of executive function. Molecular sites of interaction between environmental factors, such as alcohol and stress, and glutamate receptor mediated plasticity are considered. The accentuated negative impact of these factors during adolescence may be due in part to interference with LTD mechanisms that refine prefrontal cortical circuitry and when disrupted derail normal maturation of executive function. Diminished prefrontal cortical control over risk-taking behavior could further exacerbate negative outcomes associated with these behaviors, as for example addiction and depression. Greater insight into the neurobiology of the adolescent brain is needed to fully understand the molecular basis for heightened vulnerability during adolescence to the injurious effects of substance abuse and stress.