Short exposure to an enriched environment accelerates plasticity in the barrel cortex of adult rats.
Rema V., Armstrong-James M., Jenkinson N., Ebner FF.
Cortical sensory neurons adapt their response properties to use and disuse of peripheral receptors in their receptive field. Changes in synaptic strength can be generated in cortex by simply altering the balance of input activity, so that a persistent bias in activity levels modifies cortical receptive field properties. Such activity-dependent plasticity in cortical cell responses occurs in rat cortex when all but two whiskers are trimmed for a period of time at any age. The up-regulation of evoked responses to the intact whiskers is first seen within 24 h in the supragranular layers [Laminar comparison of somatosensory cortical plasticity. Science 265(5180):1885-1888] and continues until a new stable state is achieved [Experience-dependent plasticity in adult rat barrel cortex. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 90(5):2082-2086; Armstrong-James M, Diamond ME, Ebner FF (1994) An innocuous bias in whisker use in adult rat modifies receptive fields of barrel cortex neurons. J Neurosci 14:6978-6991]. These and many other results suggest that activity-dependent changes in cortical cell responses have an accumulation threshold that can be achieved more quickly by increasing the spike rate arising from the active region of the receptive field. Here we test the hypothesis that the rate of neuronal response change can be accelerated by placing the animals in a high activity environment after whisker trimming. Test stimuli reveal an highly significant receptive field bias in response to intact and trimmed whiskers in layer IV as well as in layers II-III neurons in only 15 h after whisker trimming. Layer IV barrel cells fail to show plasticity after 15-24 h in a standard cage environment, but produce a response bias when activity is elevated by the enriched environment. We conclude that elevated activity achieves the threshold for response modification more quickly, and this, in turn, accelerates the rate of receptive field plasticity.