Pineal attrition, loss of cognitive plasticity, and onset of puberty during the teen years: Is it a modern maladaptation exposed by evolutionary displacement?

A. Joon Yun, Kimberly A. Bazar, Patrick Y. Lee

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

18 Scopus citations


Cognitive plasticity, a developmental trait that promotes acquisition of complex skills such as language or playing musical instruments, diminishes substantially during puberty. The loss of plasticity has been attributed to surge of sex steroids during adolescence, but the phenomenon remains poorly understood. We hypothesize that pineal involution during puberty may contribute to plasticity decay. The pineal gland produces melatonin, the level of which declines dramatically during onset of puberty. Emerging evidence suggest that melatonin may modulate cognitive plasticity, independent of the effects of sex steroids, and low sex steroids and high melatonin may be simultaneously required to maintain cognitive plasticity. Potential mechanisms by which melatonin may modulate plasticity are examined within the sleep and hippocampal long-term potentiation frameworks. Implications for psychiatric conditions that involve sleep disorders and learning dysfunctions such as schizophrenia and autism are discussed, and the potential adaptive roles of postprandial and postcoital sleep are explored. From the Darwinian perspective, development and reproductive maturity may represent distinct phases that require tailored cognitive strategies to maximize fitness. While cognitive flexibility and susceptibility to new skills may be paramount during development, reduced cognitive flexibility and increased cognitive determinism may enable more efficient responses to stimuli during adulthood. Thus, cognitive plasticity and cognitive determinism may represent trade-off adaptations and different dimensions of intelligence. The decline of plasticity and emergence of puberty during the second decade may be relics of prehistoric times when the human lifespan was short and the environment was relatively simple and static. Today, when the environment is more complex and dynamic, and humans are living far longer, the early obsolescence of plasticity during puberty may represent a Darwinian inefficiency exposed by evolutionary displacement. Regulation of plasticity may be a systemic phenomenon, as exemplified by the association of learning disability with allergic conditions, a form of immune plasticity dysfunction. Ramifications for other plastic functions that decline during puberty such as wound healing and hyaline cartilage regeneration are explored. Like the plasticity of immunity and cognition, the plasticity of hyaline cartilage during youth may enable hosts to respond to ecologic opportunities and generate the optimally adapted adult phenotype. Pineal involution may represent a potential target for therapeutic extension or restoration of plasticity after puberty. Extending plasticity may have far-reaching consequences for human evolution.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)939-950
Number of pages12
JournalMedical Hypotheses
Issue number6
StatePublished - 2004
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Medicine(all)


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