The study of neural development draws on both neuroscience and developmental biology to describe the cellular and molecular mechanisms by which complex nervous systems emerge during embryonic development and throughout life.
Some landmarks of embryonic neural development include the birth and differentiation of neurons from stem cell precursors, the migration of immature neurons from their birthplaces in the embryo to their final positions, outgrowth of axons from neurons and guidance of the motile growth cone through the embryo towards postsynaptic partners, the generation of synapses between these axons and their postsynaptic partners, and finally the lifelong changes in synapses which are thought to underlie learning and memory.
Typically, these neurodevelopmental processes can be broadly divided into two classes: activity-independent mechanisms and activity-dependent mechanisms. Activity-independent mechanisms are generally believed to occur as hardwired processes determined by genetic programs played out within individual neurons. These include differentiation, migration and axon guidance to their initial target areas. These processes are thought of as being independent of neural activity and sensory experience. Once axons reach their target areas, activity-dependent mechanisms come into play. Neural activity and sensory experience will mediate formation of new synapses, as well as synaptic plasticity, which will be responsible for refinement of the nascent neural circuits.
Developmental neuroscience uses a variety of animal models including mice Mus musculus , the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster , the zebrafish Danio rerio, Xenopus laevis tadpoles and the worm Caenorhabditis elegans, among others.