Deafferentation induces novel axonal projections in the auditory brainstem after hearing onset

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Deafferentation of neural tissue can result in cell death, morphological changes, and/or alterations in sources of innervation. These changes often occur during a limited period of development. In the auditory brainstem, the ventral cochlear nucleus (VCN) projects to the contralateral but not ipsilateral medial nucleus of the trapezoid body (MNTB). This pathway is part of a circuit that computes interaural intensity differences used in sound localization. Previous studies have shown that, after the cochlea is removed early in postnatal development, cells in the VCN on the deafferented side die, and the intact VCN innervates MNTB on both sides of the brain. These changes after cochlea removal are limited to an early postnatal period that preceeds hearing onset. In this study, we lesioned the VCN directly to evaluate plasticity in axonal pathways after hearing onset. We found that novel projections from the intact VCN to ipsilateral MNTB emerge after lesions performed as late as postnatal day 25. The morphological sequence of events is similar to that seen during the initial development of this pathway. These data suggest that plasticity in the auditory brainstem is possible when pathways are challenged with denervation of target nuclei. The results show that the opportunity for plasticity in auditory brainstem circuitry is more prolonged than previously thought and that novel pathways can form after the normal pathways are fully mature and functional. Moreover, sensitive periods for changes in individual pathways are independently regulated.

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