We hope that our research contributes to the understanding of the mechanisms regulating cortical plasticity. This knowledge may help to develop novel ways to enhance plasticity in the brain for therapeutic applications, such as the treatment of neurodevelopmental or neurodegenerative disorders and the better integration of brain-machine interfaces for prostheses.
Plasticity of the neocortex is crucial for us to learn and adapt to our environment. Once tasks or functions are learned, the brain can carry them out very efficiently, in a routine-like fashion. However, learning and carrying out routine functions do not go hand in hand. During development the brain is highly malleable, but processes information rather slowly and erratically. Vice versa, when we perform routine tasks, little learning occurs and we ignore many inputs. This situation can suddenly change when a routine procedure results in an unexpected outcome. We rapidly become aware of additional circumstances and learn what caused the unexpected result.
Recent evidence, also from our laboratory, suggests that these increases in plasticity levels during critical periods of development or in response to reinforcement signals are achieved by a temporary reduction in cortical inhibition. Possibly, high levels of inhibition increase performance of neuronal networks by suppressing inputs that are irrelevant for the execution of routine tasks. Reduced inhibition may support learning by allowing such inputs to be taken into consideration to solve a novel challenge.
Using the mouse visual cortex as a model, the Levelt lab studies how inhibition regulates cortical plasticity levels at the right time. To achieve this goal the lab employs a combination of state-of-the art two-photon microscopy, electrophysiology, optogenetics and gene manipulation.
Additional information and articles
- ‘Inhibitory neurons are crucial for good development’
NMNAT Proteins that Limit Wallerian Degeneration Also Regulate Critical Period Plasticity in the Visual Cortex eNeuro 6 (2019) Download