Dissecting natural sensory plasticity: Hormones and experience in a maternal context

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There is a growing consensus that the auditory system is dynamic in its representation of behaviorally relevant sounds. The auditory cortex in particular seems to be an important locus for plasticity that may reflect the memory of such sounds, or functionally improve their processing. The mechanisms that underlie these changes may be either intrinsic because they depend on the receiver's physiological state, or extrinsic because they arise from the context in which behavioral relevance is gained. Research in a mouse model of acoustic communication between offspring and adult females offers the opportunity to explore both of these contributions to auditory cortical plasticity in a natural context. Recent works have found that after the vocalizations of infant mice become behaviorally relevant to mothers, auditory cortical activity is significantly changed in a way that may improve their processing. Here we consider the hypothesis that maternal hormones (intrinsic factor) and sensory experience (extrinsic factor) contribute together to drive these changes, focusing specifically on the evidence that well-known experience-dependent mechanisms of cortical plasticity can be modulated by hormones.

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