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Competition And Convergence Between Auditory And Cross-modal Visual Inputs To Primary Auditory Cortical Areas

Yu-Ting Mao, Tian-Miao Hua, Sarah L. Pallas

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Sensory neocortex is capable of considerable plasticity after sensory deprivation or damage to input pathways, especially early in development. Although plasticity can often be restorative, sometimes novel, ectopic inputs invade the affected cortical area. Invading inputs from other sensory modalities may compromise the original function or even take over, imposing a new function and preventing recovery. Using ferrets whose retinal axons were rerouted into auditory thalamus at birth, we were able to examine the effect of varying the degree of ectopic, cross-modal input on reorganization of developing auditory cortex. In particular, we assayed whether the invading visual inputs and the existing auditory inputs competed for or shared postsynaptic targets and whether the convergence of input modalities would induce multisensory processing. We demonstrate that although the cross-modal inputs create new visual neurons in auditory cortex, some auditory processing remains. The degree of damage to auditory input to the medial geniculate nucleus was directly related to the proportion of visual neurons in auditory cortex, suggesting that the visual and residual auditory inputs compete for cortical territory. Visual neurons were not segregated from auditory neurons but shared target space even on individual target cells, substantially increasing the proportion of multisensory neurons. Thus spatial convergence of visual and auditory input modalities may be sufficient to expand multisensory representations. Together these findings argue that early, patterned visual activity does not drive segregation of visual and auditory afferents and suggest that auditory function might be compromised by converging visual inputs. These results indicate possible ways in which multisensory cortical areas may form during development and evolution. They also suggest that rehabilitative strategies designed to promote recovery of function after sensory deprivation or damage need to take into account that sensory cortex may become substantially more multisensory after alteration of its input during development.