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Sensory Input Necessary During "Critical Periods" Of Brain Development

The mysteries of the brain are yet to be fully solved, but scientists are aware that there is a need for some sort of neural activity for the brain to mature during //the "critical period" when it is necessary that there is a fair degree of sensory input. Scientists say that the senses of vision, hearing and touch develop during such critical periods.

The visual system provides an exemplary model for studying developmental plasticity, however, because of the pioneering work of Nobel prize-winning HMS researchers David Hubel and Torsten Wiesel describing the visual system's structure, prerequisite knowledge for investigating its flexibility. Although visual plasticity has been studied for over 40 years, exactly how sensory experience interacts with the built-in machinery that permits the brain to change its circuits is only beginning to be understood.

A new study focusing on the molecular roots of plasticity has found that visual stimulus turns up the expression of some genes and turns down the expression of others, somewhat like a conductor cueing the members of an orchestra. The study also found that during different stages of life in rodents, distinct sets of genes spring into action in response to visual input. These gene sets may work in concert to allow synapses and neural circuits to respond to visual activity and shape the brain, reports the May issue of Nature Neuroscience.

The investigators' identification of many distinct sets of activity-dependent genes follows a shift in neuroscience research toward a more holistic view of the role of genes in neural development and plasticity.

"What we found opens science up to a more global look at genes, from studying one gene at a time to looking at families of genes acting together," said first author Marta Majdan, Harvard Medical School research fellow in neurobiology. These findings suggest that genetic therapies for neurodegenerative diseases, some of which are largely
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