Summary and Keywords
The role of experience in brain organization and function can be studied by systematically manipulating developmental experiences. The most common protocols use extremes in experiential manipulation, such as environmental deprivation and/or enrichment. Studies of the effects of deprivation range from laboratory studies in which animals are raised in the absence of sensory or social experiences from infancy to children raised in orphanages with limited caregiver interaction. In both cases there are chronic perceptual, cognitive, and social dsyfunctions that are associated with chronic changes in neuronal structure and connectivity. Deprivation can be more subtle too, such as being raised in a low socioeconomic environment, which is often associated with poverty. Such experience is especially detrimental to language development, which in turn, limits educational opportunities. Unfortunately, the effects of some forms of socioemotional deprivation are often difficult, if not impossible, to ameliorate.
In contrast, adding sensory or social experiences can enhance behavioral functions. For example, placing animals in environments that are cognitively, motorically, and/or socially more complex than standard laboratory housing is associated with neuronal changes that are correlated with superior functions. Enhanced sensory experiences can be relatively subtle, however. For example, tactile stimulation with a soft brush for 15 minutes, three times daily for just two weeks in infant rats leads to permanent improvement in a wide range of psychological functions, including motoric, mnemonic, and other cognitive functions. Both complex environments and sensory stimulation can also reverse the negative effects of many other experiences. Thus, tactile stimulation accelerates discharge from hospital for premature human infants and stimulates recovery from stroke in both infant and adult rats. In sum, brain and behavioral functions are exquisitely influenced by manipulation of sensory experiences, especially in development.
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