The relationship between pubertal hormones and brain plasticity: Implications for cognitive training in adolescence

Dev Cogn Neurosci. 2020 Apr;42:100753. doi: 10.1016/j.dcn.2020.100753. Epub 2020 Jan 22.


Adolescence may mark a sensitive period for the development of higher-order cognition through enhanced plasticity of cortical circuits. At the same time, animal research indicates that pubertal hormones may represent one key mechanism for closing sensitive periods in the associative neocortex, thereby resulting in decreased plasticity of cortical circuits in adolescence. In the present review, we set out to solve some of the existing ambiguity and examine how hormonal changes associated with pubertal onset may modulate plasticity in higher-order cognition during adolescence. We build on existing age-comparative cognitive training studies to explore how the potential for change in neural resources and behavioral repertoire differs across age groups. We review animal and human brain imaging studies, which demonstrate a link between brain development, neurochemical mechanisms of plasticity, and pubertal hormones. Overall, the existent literature indicates that pubertal hormones play a pivotal role in regulating the mechanisms of experience-dependent plasticity during adolescence. However, the extent to which hormonal changes associated with pubertal onset increase or decrease brain plasticity may depend on the specific cognitive domain, the sex, and associated brain networks. We discuss implications for future research and suggest that systematical longitudinal assessments of pubertal change together with cognitive training interventions may be a fruitful way toward a better understanding of adolescent plasticity. As the age of pubertal onset is decreasing across developed societies, this may also have important educational and clinical implications, especially with respect to the effects that earlier puberty has on learning.

Keywords: Episodic memory; Executive function; Hormones; MRI; Puberty onset; Working memory.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Brain / physiology*
  • Child
  • Cognition / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Neuronal Plasticity / physiology*
  • Puberty / physiology*