Neural variability limits adolescent skill learning

Melissa L. Caras, Dan H. Sanes

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Skill learning is fundamental to the acquisition of many complex behaviors that emerge during development. For example, years of practice give rise to perceptual improvements that contribute to mature speech and language skills. While fully honed learning skills might be thought to offer an advantage during the juvenile period, the ability to learn actually continues to develop through childhood and adolescence, suggesting that the neural mechanisms that support skill learning are slow to mature. To address this issue, we asked whether the rate and magnitude of perceptual learning varies as a function of age as male and female gerbils trained on an auditory task. Adolescents displayed a slower rate of perceptual learning compared with their young and mature counterparts. We recorded auditory cortical neuron activity from a subset of adolescent and adult gerbils as they underwent perceptual training. While training enhanced the sensitivity of most adult units, the sensitivity of many adolescent units remained unchanged, or even declined across training days. Therefore, the average rate of cortical improvement was significantly slower in adolescents compared with adults. Both smaller differences between sound-evoked response magnitudes and greater trial-to-trial response fluctuations contributed to the poorer sensitivity of individual adolescent neurons. Together, these findings suggest that elevated sensory neural variability limits adolescent skill learning.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2889-2902
Number of pages14
JournalJournal of Neuroscience
Issue number15
StatePublished - Apr 10 2019


  • Adolescence
  • Auditory cortex
  • Development
  • Internal noise
  • Perceptual learning
  • Practice

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Neuroscience


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