Sight requires exact pattern of neural activity to be wired in the womb

June 22, 2011

The precise wiring of our visual system depends upon the pattern of spontaneous activity within the brain that occurs well before birth, a new study by Yale researchers shows.

"It isn't just the genes. What happens within the womb is crucial," said Michael Crair, the William Ziegler III Associate Professor of Vision Research at Yale School of Medicine and senior author of the study published in the June 23 issue of Neuron.

The extent of the roles of nature and nurture in the development of has long been debated. Scientists know genes provide the basic plan for initially, and connections between are fine-tuned later in development.

But how does experience influence the wiring of the visual system in mammals, which have relatively long gestation periods during which the fetus is never visually stimulated? The answer apparently lies in the spontaneous pattern of generated by the brain itself.

Crair and his team genetically manipulated the retina of mice early in their development in ways that affected the pattern, but not the overall levels, of neural activity. They found that the visual system in these mice never developed properly.

"If experience plays a role in , it is hard to explain how vision would be affected before birth because we do not see anything in the womb," Crair said. "But we found that it is actually the pattern of ongoing spontaneous activity in the developing retina, not genes alone, that play a crucial in the development of the visual system."

That means environmental disruption of these neural patterns during development could be damaging to the formation of these . Crair notes that the team managed to alter these patterns by manipulating nicotinic acetylcholine receptors – the same receptors that are targeted by nicotine.

"It is possible that nicotine exposure would have a negative influence on neuronal connectivity of a child's brain, even in the womb," he said.

Related Stories

Recommended for you

Brain training can improve our understanding of speech in noisy places

October 19, 2017
For many people with hearing challenges, trying to follow a conversation in a crowded restaurant or other noisy venue is a major struggle, even with hearing aids. Now researchers reporting in Current Biology on October 19th ...

Investigating the most common genetic contributor to Parkinson's disease

October 19, 2017
LRRK2 gene mutations are the most common genetic cause of Parkinson's disease (PD), but the normal physiological role of this gene in the brain remains unclear. In a paper published in Neuron, Brigham and Women's Hospital ...

Brain takes seconds to switch modes during tasks

October 19, 2017
The brain rapidly switches between operational modes in response to tasks and what is replayed can predict how well a task will be completed, according to a new UCL study in rats.

Researchers find shifting relationship between flexibility, modularity in the brain

October 19, 2017
A new study by Rice University researchers takes a step toward what they see as key to the advance of neuroscience: a better understanding of the relationship between the brain's flexibility and its modularity.

New procedure enables cultivation of human brain sections in the petri dish

October 19, 2017
Researchers at the University of Tübingen have become the first to keep human brain tissue alive outside the body for several weeks. The researchers, headed by Dr. Niklas Schwarz, Dr. Henner Koch and Dr. Thomas Wuttke at ...

Want to control your dreams? Here's how

October 19, 2017
New research at the University of Adelaide has found that a specific combination of techniques will increase people's chances of having lucid dreams, in which the dreamer is aware they're dreaming while it's still happening ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

hush1
not rated yet Jun 23, 2011
The 'pattern' falls short of description here.

Aren't you glade we are able to 'perceive' 'dark'?
There are 'only' five senses. To 'see' the entire spectrum means no dark. To make sense of 'no dark' you need more than five senses. I can not imagine an 'all seeing' 'life' form.

I asked a person born blind what 'color' is and she replied:
Music.

What can one 'see' without touch, smell, hearing, and taste?
That's not philosophical.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.