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J Neurosci. 2015 Jul 29;35(30):10831-42. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0837-15.2015.

Sustained Perceptual Deficits from Transient Sensory Deprivation.

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Center for Neural Science, New York University, New York, New York 10003
Center for Neural Science, New York University, New York, New York 10003.


Sensory pathways display heightened plasticity during development, yet the perceptual consequences of early experience are generally assessed in adulthood. This approach does not allow one to identify transient perceptual changes that may be linked to the central plasticity observed in juvenile animals. Here, we determined whether a brief period of bilateral auditory deprivation affects sound perception in developing and adult gerbils. Animals were reared with bilateral earplugs, either from postnatal day 11 (P11) to postnatal day 23 (P23) (a manipulation previously found to disrupt gerbil cortical properties), or from P23-P35. Fifteen days after earplug removal and restoration of normal thresholds, animals were tested on their ability to detect the presence of amplitude modulation (AM), a temporal cue that supports vocal communication. Animals reared with earplugs from P11-P23 displayed elevated AM detection thresholds, compared with age-matched controls. In contrast, an identical period of earplug rearing at a later age (P23-P35) did not impair auditory perception. Although the AM thresholds of earplug-reared juveniles improved during a week of repeated testing, a subset of juveniles continued to display a perceptual deficit. Furthermore, although the perceptual deficits induced by transient earplug rearing had resolved for most animals by adulthood, a subset of adults displayed impaired performance. Control experiments indicated that earplugging did not disrupt the integrity of the auditory periphery. Together, our results suggest that P11-P23 encompasses a critical period during which sensory deprivation disrupts central mechanisms that support auditory perceptual skills.


Sensory systems are particularly malleable during development. This heightened degree of plasticity is beneficial because it enables the acquisition of complex skills, such as music or language. However, this plasticity comes with a cost: nervous system development displays an increased vulnerability to the sensory environment. Here, we identify a precise developmental window during which mild hearing loss affects the maturation of an auditory perceptual cue that is known to support animal communication, including human speech. Furthermore, animals reared with transient hearing loss display deficits in perceptual learning. Our results suggest that speech and language delays associated with transient or permanent childhood hearing loss may be accounted for, in part, by deficits in central auditory processing mechanisms.


auditory; critical period; development; hearing loss; otitis media; plasticity

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