Rapid Infant Prefrontal Cortex Development and Sensitivity to Early Environmental Experience

Dev Rev. 2018 Jun;48:113-144. doi: 10.1016/j.dr.2018.02.003. Epub 2018 Mar 11.


Over the last fifteen years, the emerging field of developmental cognitive neuroscience has described the relatively late development of prefrontal cortex in children and the relation between gradual structural changes and children's protracted development of prefrontal-dependent skills. Widespread recognition by the broader scientific community of the extended development of prefrontal cortex has led to the overwhelming perception of prefrontal cortex as a "late developing" region of the brain. However, despite its supposedly protracted development, multiple lines of research have converged to suggest that prefrontal cortex development may be particularly susceptible to individual differences in children's early environments. Recent studies demonstrate that the impacts of early adverse environments on prefrontal cortex are present very early in development: within the first year of life. This review provides a comprehensive overview of new neuroimaging evidence demonstrating that prefrontal cortex should be characterized as a "rapidly developing" region of the brain, discusses the converging impacts of early adversity on prefrontal circuits, and presents potential mechanisms via which adverse environments shape both concurrent and long-term measures of prefrontal cortex development. Given that environmentally-induced disparities are present in prefrontal cortex development within the first year of life, translational work in intervention and/or prevention science should focus on intervening early in development to take advantages of this early period of rapid prefrontal development and heightened plasticity.

Keywords: brain development; early experience; infancy; prefrontal cortex.