Play is an important part of normal childhood development and is seen in varied forms among many mammals. While not indispensable to normal development, playful social experiences as juveniles may provide an opportunity to develop flexible behavioural strategies when novel and uncertain situations arise as an adult. To understand the neurobiological mechanisms responsible for play and how the functions of play may relate to these neural substrates, the rat has become the model of choice. Play in the rat is easily quantified, tightly regulated, and can be modulated by genetic factors and postnatal experiences. Brain areas most likely to be involved in the modulation of play include regions within the prefrontal cortex, dorsal and ventral striatum, some regions of the amygdala, and habenula. This paper discusses what we currently know about the neurobiological substrates of play and how this can help illuminate functional questions about the putative benefits of play.
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