Understanding brain development malfunctions


In what could be a pivotal discovery, medical researchers have identified a brain receptor thought to be the one that initiates adolescent synaptic pruning; a maintenance process which facilitates learning. Synaptic pruning is what has been revealed to malfunction in young people with autism or schizophrenia.

As referenced in our previous article explaining synaptic pruning, part of maturation organically includes the pubescent mind, between 12–24 years old, halving “the number of neurons and neural connections,” facilitating a smoother “synchronization of information flow.”

Lisa Firestone, Ph.D., explains synaptic pruning is what makes connections reliable. She says it turns them into “super highways.” But what if the connections aren’t reliable?

An illustration

For the child with autism, picture brain development as a transcontinental plane flight, brain functions being departures and physiological expressions being arrivals. Between the two locations, “If kids don’t reinforce all those neural connections, they risk getting pruned,” according to ExpandED Schools.

For kids with autism, it’s like traveling without a passport. Their mind holds majestic wonders in itself, but they can’t travel outside of it. Their transcontinental flight is grounded because it can’t get reinforced with a connecting flight. Reinforcement includes being able to demonstrate what is learned through articulation and mirroring.

For adolescents developing schizophrenia during their formative years, their cognitive pruning process is also malfunctioning – much like a departure and arrival airport flap display flipping erratically. With the help of medication and exercise, those manifesting schizophrenia can hope to catch their connecting flight and soar on to their cognitive destination. However, if schizophrenia is yet to be detected or untreated, it would be near impossible to decipher where and what time a connection is to be made if their flap display is flipping faster than a deck of cards being shuffled.

Keith Nuechterlein, Ph.D., is a professor at UCLA’s Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior. He explains, “In schizophrenia, the process goes awry, pruning needed as well as unnecessary connections, so important connections are deleted.”

Introducing: The dendritic spine

Sheryl Smith, Ph.D., is a professor of physiology and pharmacology at SUNY Downstate in New York. She says she and her team were “the first to identify the process which initiates synaptic pruning at puberty.”

At puberty, the brain produces more Gamma-Amino Butyric acid (GABA) receptors, which calm nervous activity, Smith explains. Her team discovered GABA receptors trigger synaptic pruning at puberty on dendritic spines, which themselves are a structure upholding memories, like a shelf.

Smith says the adolescent brains that do not undergo synaptic pruning can learn spatial locations initially, but can’t relearn new locations. This indicates too many brain connections may form a dense web, obscuring learning potential for the autistic.

Other data “suggests that prefrontal brain areas in persons with schizophrenia have fewer neural connections than the brains of those who do not have the condition,” indicates Smith.

The research signifies new treatments geared toward assisting GABA receptors in synaptic pruning could help override autism and schizophrenia brain malfunctions during puberty.

White River Academy,  keeps families and treatment professionals abreast on the latest in clinical news and practical insights for lasting wellness for our students. We are a residential treatment facility for boys 12-17 who have fallen off track during these formative years, either with mental disorder, substance abuse or a dual diagnosis of both conditions. Call our 24/7 helpline to learn more.

About the author

Kristin Currin-Sheehan is a mindful spirit swimming in metaphysical pools with faith as her compass. Her cover: a 30s-something Cinderella breadwinner of an all-sport blended family. Her repertoire includes writing poetry, lifestyle articles and TV news; editing, radio production and on-camera reporting. 

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