How brains mature during critical periods

This 2015 German rodent study found:

“Once silent synapses are consolidated in any neural circuit, initial experience-dependent functional optimization and critical periods end.

Silent synapses are thought to be immature, still-developing excitatory synapses.”

The number of silent synapses related to visual processing was measured at ~50% at eye opening. Visual experience reduced this to 5% or less by adulthood in the study’s control group. Removing a protein in the subjects’ hippocampus silenced the synapses back up to ~50%, even in adults.

Critical periods are:

“Characterized by the absolute requirement for experience in a restricted time window for neural network optimization.

Although some functions can be substantially ameliorated after the CP [critical period], they are rarely optimally restored.”

Two human studies were cited on critical periods in second-language and musical skills development.

The researchers generalized their findings as:

“Experience-dependent unsilencing of silent synapses constitutes an important general maturational process during CPs of cortical development of different functional domains and suggest an interplay with inhibitory circuits in regulating plasticity.”

http://www.pnas.org/content/112/24/E3131.full “Progressive maturation of silent synapses governs the duration of a critical period”

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