Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Neuroscience Institute

First Advisor

Sarah L. Pallas

Second Advisor

Daniel Cox

Third Advisor

Angela Mabb

Fourth Advisor

Peter Wenner


The establishment of neuronal connections requires a sequence of orchestrated events including neuronal migration, axon guidance, synapse formation and elimination, and circuit fine-tuning. Understanding the molecular signaling pathways that underlie these processes is fundamental to understanding how the nervous system is assembled and how it functions. In this dissertation, I investigated the molecular mechanisms mediating the effects of visual experience in the development and plasticity of the visual pathway. Each neuron receiving visual input responds to a specific area of the visual field- their receptive field (RF). During early development RFs refine in size, an important property of visual acuity. Utilizing the sensory deprivation model of dark rearing (DR) in Syrian hamsters (Mesocricerus auratus), I investigated the signaling mechanisms underlying RF refinement and plasticity. Our lab has previously reported that the developmental refinement of RFs happens independently of visual experience in both superior colliculus (SC) and visual cortex (V1), but fails to be maintained without sufficient visual experience during an early critical period (CP). Using a pharmacological approach, I show that BDNF/TrkB signaling is crucial for the maintenance of RF refinement in SC. DR hamsters treated with a TrkB agonist during the CP for RF refinement maintenance (P33-P40) have mature RFs in adulthood. Hamsters given visual experience, but treated with a TrkB antagonist during the CP have enlarged (unrefined) RFs in adulthood. I also show that refined RFs are essential for enhancing both looming escape behaviors, and spatial discrimination of sinusoidal gratings. How early visual experience prevents plasticity in adulthood (resulting in a loss of RF maintenance) is poorly understood, but reduced GABAergic inhibition is involved. Using a molecular approach I identified several possible mechanisms mediating a loss of inhibition in SC of DR adults. Ultimately it appears that reduced expression of the GABA neurotransmitter is primarily responsible for loss of RF maintenance, rather than any post synaptic modifications. This work provides insight into the mechanisms of development and plasticity in the nervous system and could instruct therapies to prevent maladaptive plasticity in disease and to enhance recovery of function in adults.


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