17 Environmental Influences on Development of the Nervous System

Behavioral Neuroscience

  1. Laura Petrosini PhD,
  2. Debora Cutuli PhD,
  3. Paola De Bartolo

Published Online: 26 SEP 2012

DOI: 10.1002/9781118133880.hop203017

Handbook of Psychology, Second Edition

Handbook of Psychology, Second Edition

How to Cite

Petrosini, L., Cutuli, D. and De Bartolo, P. 2012. Environmental Influences on Development of the Nervous System. Handbook of Psychology, Second Edition. 3:17.

Author Information

  1. I.R.C.C.S. Santa Lucia Foundation, “Sapienza” University of Rome, Department of Psychology, Rome, Italy

Publication History

  1. Published Online: 26 SEP 2012


This chapter describes how brain structure and function can be influenced by experience throughout the development of the nervous system. The present comparative approach focuses on neural plasticity mechanisms in many brain areas and on sensitivity to experiential factors at many developmental stages. Genetic control of brain structure and behavior can provide the necessary basis for complex experience-sensitive plasticity mechanisms. Mammalian neurodevelopment apparently relies on two basic categories of neural plasticity. One kind of plasticity refers to experience-expectant mechanisms, which have evolved to utilize reliable experience common to almost all members of a species in order to refine coarse neural systems. Other plasticity mechanisms, defined as experience-dependent, have evolved to maximize fitness of each individual by incorporating idiosyncratic information needed for survival (e.g., finding food, avoiding predators, etc). An important application of this perspective is to understand the neural basis of animal and human cognitive development. Therefore, the experimental paradigm of environmental enrichment is discussed within the context of studies that model neuronal plasticity of the brain. Particular attention will be paid to the concept of cerebral reserves as an example of the significance of experience-dependent development.


  • neural plasticity;
  • development;
  • genes;
  • environment