Perceptual and neural consequences of early auditory experience

A general theory of development holds that a heightened period of neural plasticity is associated with greater vulnerability to the deprivation of sensory experience. For example, auditory deprivation during a discrete age range in gerbils induces long-lasting cortical synaptic deficits that can account for perceptual impairments. In contrast, little is known about the neural mechanisms associated with skill learning in juveniles. To address this issue, we recorded telemetrically from auditory cortex of juvenile and adult gerbils as they trained and improved on a psychometric task. Juveniles learned more slowly than adults, consistent with human studies (Huyck and Wright, 2011; Pattwell et al., 2012), and auditory cortex neuron sensitivity to the acoustic stimuli displayed smaller improvements during training. Together, these findings suggest that while juvenile animals display profound long-term benefits from practice, the cortical mechanisms that support skill learning are limited in the short-term.