Experience-Driven Plasticity and the Emergence of Psychopathology: A Mechanistic Framework Integrating Development and the Environment into the Research Domain Criteria (RDoC) Model



Despite the clear importance of a developmental perspective for understanding the emergence of psychopathology across the life-course, such a perspective has yet to be integrated into the RDoC model. In this paper, we articulate a framework that incorporates developmentally-specific learning mechanisms that reflect experience-driven plasticity as additional units of analysis in the existing RDoC matrix. These include both experience-expectant learning mechanisms that occur during sensitive periods of development and experience-dependent learning mechanisms that may exhibit substantial variation across development. Incorporating these learning mechanisms allows for clear integration not only of development but also environmental experience into the RDoC model. We demonstrate how individual differences in environmental experiences—such as early-life adversity—can be leveraged to identify experience-driven plasticity patterns across development and apply this framework to consider how environmental experience shapes key biobehavioral processes that comprise the RDoC model. This framework provides a structure for understanding how affective, cognitive, social, and neurobiological processes are shaped by experience across development and ultimately contribute to the emergence of psychopathology. We demonstrate how incorporating an experience-driven plasticity framework is critical for understanding the development of many processes subsumed within the RDoC model, which will contribute to greater understanding of developmental variation in the etiology of psychopathology and can be leveraged to identify potential windows of heightened developmental plasticity when clinical interventions might be maximally efficacious.

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