Incremental training increases the plasticity of the auditory space map in adult barn owls


The plasticity in the central nervous system that underlies learning is generally more restricted in adults than in young animals1,2,3,4. In one well-studied example, the auditory localization pathway has been shown to be far more limited in its capacity to adjust to abnormal experience in adult than in juvenile barn owls5. Plasticity in this pathway has been induced by exposing owls to prismatic spectacles that cause a large, horizontal shift of the visual field. With prisms, juveniles learn new associations between auditory cues, such as interaural time difference (ITD), and locations in visual space, and acquire new neurophysiological maps of ITD in the optic tectum, whereas adults do neither6. Here we show that when the prismatic shift is experienced in small increments, maps of ITD in adults do change adaptively. Once established through incremental training, new ITD maps can be reacquired with a single large prismatic shift. Our results show that there is a substantially greater capacity for plasticity in adults than was previously recognized and highlight a principled strategy for tapping this capacity that could be applied in other areas of the adult central nervous system.

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Figure 1: Effect of experience with a single large (17°) step in prism strength on ITD tuning in the optic tectum in one representative owl.
Figure 2: Effects of incremental training on ITD tuning in the optic tectum.
Figure 3: Summary of maximum shifts in ITD tuning.


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We thank Y. Gutfreund and G. Corrado for critical comments on the manuscript. B.A.L. was supported by a National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate Fellowship, a NIH Training Grant, and the Gerald J. Lieberman Fellowship. This research was supported by grants to E.I.K. from The March of Dimes and The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders.

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Correspondence to Eric I. Knudsen.

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Linkenhoker, B., Knudsen, E. Incremental training increases the plasticity of the auditory space map in adult barn owls. Nature 419, 293–296 (2002) doi:10.1038/nature01002

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