BACKGROUND: Neural systems must weight and integrate different sensory cues in order to make decisions. However, environmental conditions often change over time, altering the reliability of different cues and therefore the optimal way for combining them. To explore how cue integration develops in dynamic environments, we examined the effects on auditory spatial processing of rearing ferrets with localization cues that were modified via a unilateral earplug, interspersed with brief periods of normal hearing. RESULTS: In contrast with control animals, which rely primarily on timing and intensity differences between their two ears to localize sound sources, the juvenile-plugged ferrets developed the ability to localize sounds accurately by relying more on the unchanged spectral localization cues provided by the single normal ear. This adaptive process was paralleled by changes in neuronal responses in the primary auditory cortex, which became relatively more sensitive to these monaural spatial cues. Our behavioral and physiological data demonstrated, however, that the reweighting of different spatial cues disappeared as soon as normal hearing was experienced, showing for the first time that this type of plasticity can be context specific. CONCLUSIONS: These results show that developmental changes can be selectively expressed in response to specific acoustic conditions. In this way, the auditory system can develop and simultaneously maintain two distinct models of auditory space and switch between these models depending on the prevailing sensory context. This ability is likely to be critical for maintaining accurate perception in dynamic environments and may point toward novel therapeutic strategies for individuals who experience sensory deficits during development.
1291 - 1299
Acoustic Stimulation, Animals, Auditory Cortex, Cues, Ferrets, Hearing, Neuronal Plasticity, Sound Localization