Cortical plasticity
Mriganka Sur, Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences and Picower Institute for Learning and Memory, MIT, Cambridge, USA.

The cerebral cortex of the human brain is a sheet of about 10 billion neurons divided into discrete subdivisions or areas that process particular aspects of sensation, movement and cognition. The degree to which our genetic endowment (nature) versus our experiences (nurture) molds the function of the cortex has been the subject of robust discussion and experimental investigation. Plasticity, or the adaptive response of the brain to changes in inputs, is now seen as essential to cortical development and function. While the developing brain requires a genetic blueprint, it is also acutely sensitive to the environment. The adult brain continually adapts to stimuli, and this plasticity is manifest not only as learning and memory but also as dynamic changes in information transmission and processing.

In recent years, tremendous strides have been made in understanding the plasticity and function of the cerebral cortex using molecular, genetic, imaging and electrophysiological approaches. The new evidence indicates that the dynamics of cortical synapses and networks involve a rich array of signals, with considerable interplay between mechanisms intrinsic to cortical neurons and astrocytes and mechanisms regulated by extrinsic inputs, importantly the quantity and quality of electrical activity. This activity may be derived from the outside world or be generated within the brain, including during brain states such as sleep and wakefulness or attention. This evidence has begun to transform our understanding of how cortical areas form, make specific connections with other brain regions, develop unique processing networks, encode information, and enable us to learn and remember.

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