Date of Award

Summer 8-12-2014

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Neuroscience Institute

First Advisor

Sarah L. Pallas

Second Advisor

Paul S. Katz

Third Advisor

Vincent Rehder

Fourth Advisor

Peter Wenner


Development of brain function is instructed by both genetically-determined processes (nature) and environmental stimuli (nurture). The relative importance of nature and nurture is a major question in developmental neurobiology. In this dissertation, I investigated the role of visual experience in the development and plasticity of the visual pathway. Each neuron that receives visual input responds to a specific area of the visual field- their receptive field (RF). Developmental refinement reduces RF size and underlies visual acuity, which is important for survival. By rearing Syrian hamsters (Mesocricetus auratus) in constant darkness (dark rearing, DR) from birth, I investigated the role of visual experience in RF refinement and plasticity. Previous work in this lab has shown that developmental refinement of RFs occurs in the absence of visual experience in the superior colliculus (SC), but that RFs unrefine and thus enlarge in adulthood during chronic DR. Using an in vivo electrophysiological approach, I show that, contrary to a widely held view, visual experience is not necessary for refinement of RFs in primary visual cortex (V1). In both SC and V1, RFs refine by postnatal day (P) 60, but enlarge by P90 with chronic DR. One week of visual experience was sufficient to prevent RF enlargement in SC and V1. How normal sensory experience prevents plasticity in mature circuits is not well understood. Using an in vitro electrophysiological approach, I demonstrated that GABAergic inhibition is reduced in DR SC, which in turn affects short-term (but not long-term) synaptic plasticity. The level of GABABR-mediated short-term synaptic depression (STD) that occurs during high-frequency afferent stimulation, such as occurs during vision, is reduced by DR. Using a computational model of RF size, I propose that, in addition to the effect of reduced inhibition, reduced STD of excitation could contribute to enlarged RFs. This work provides insight into mechanisms of development and plasticity of the nervous system. How plasticity is restricted in mature circuits is of fundamental importance in neuroscience and could instruct therapies to prevent maladaptive plasticity in disease and to enhance recovery of function in adults.