U.S. researchers at Brandeis University are offering new insight into how the brain’s neural circuits are actually shaped by experience.

Getting our brains to wire up properly requires experience during an early critical period of development, and understanding the mechanisms of this experience-dependent plasticity is critical for understanding human development, its disorders, and for designing strategies that promote optimal cognitive development during early childhood, explained author and neuroscientist Gina Turrigiano.

Neuroscientists have long known the brain needs proper sensory stimulation to develop correctly and that experience can induce plastical changes in the functional architecture of sensory cortices.

In their new experiments, Turrigiano and colleagues explored the visual cortex circuit of young rats by recording electrical activity of neurons and their connections.

We have found an important and novel mechanism involved in the loss of function of cortical circuits, said co-author neurophysiologist Arianna Maffei. While our results directly apply to the loss of visual function secondary to sensory deprivation, they very likely represent a more general strategy for cortical networks to respond to experience.

The research is detailed in the current online edition of the journal Nature.