Although the auditory system has limited information processing resources, the acoustic environment is infinitely variable. To properly encode the natural environment, the developing central auditory system becomes somewhat specialized through experience-dependent adaptive mechanisms that operate during a sensitive time window. Recent studies have demonstrated that cellular and synaptic plasticity occurs throughout the central auditory pathway. Acoustic-rearing experiments can lead to an over-representation of the exposed sound frequency, and this is associated with specific changes in frequency discrimination. These forms of cellular plasticity are manifest in brain regions, such as midbrain and cortex, which interact through feed-forward and feedback pathways. Hearing loss leads to a profound re-weighting of excitatory and inhibitory synaptic gain throughout the auditory CNS, and this is associated with an over-excitability that is observed in vivo. Further behavioral and computational analyses may provide insights into how theses cellular and systems plasticity effects underlie the development of cognitive functions such as speech perception.
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