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Nature. 2004 May 6;429(6987):67-71.

Naturalistic experience transforms sensory maps in the adult cortex of caged animals.

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  • 1Department of Neurobiology and Behavior, University of California, Irvine, California 92697-4550, USA.


Much of what is known about the functional organization and plasticity of adult sensory cortex is derived from animals housed in standard laboratory cages. Here we report that the transfer of adult rats reared in standard laboratory cages to a naturalistic habitat modifies the functional and morphological organization of the facial whisker representation in the somatosensory 'barrel' cortex. Cortical whisker representations, visualized with repeated intrinsic signal optical imaging in the same animals, contracted by 46% after four to six weeks of exposure to the naturalistic habitat. Acute, multi-site extracellular recordings demonstrated suppressed evoked neuronal responses and smaller, sharper constituent receptive fields in the upper cortical layers (II/III), but not in the thalamic recipient layer (IV), of rats with naturalistic experience. Morphological plasticity of the layer IV barrel field was observed, but on a substantially smaller scale than the functional plasticity. Thus, transferring animals to an environment that promotes the expression of natural, innate behaviours induces a large-scale functional refinement of cortical sensory maps.

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