Behavioral strategies that depend on sensory information are not immutable; rather they can be shaped by the specific sensory context in which animals develop. This behavioral plasticity depends on the remarkable capacity for the brain to reorganize in response to alterations in the sensory environment, particularly when changes in sensory input occur at an early age. To study this phenomenon, we utilize the short-tailed opossum, a marsupial that has been a valuable animal model to study developmental plasticity due to the extremely immature state of its nervous system at birth. Previous studies in opossums have demonstrated that removal of retinal inputs early in development results in profound alterations to cortical connectivity and functional organization of visual and somatosensory cortex; however, behavioral consequences of this plasticity are not well understood. We trained early blind (EB) and sighted control (SC) opossums to perform a two-alternative forced choice texture discrimination task. Whisker trimming caused an acute deficit in discrimination accuracy for both EB and SC animals indicating that they primarily used a whisker-based strategy to guide choices based on tactile cues – though performance recovered in days, suggesting a shift to the use of other body parts when whiskers were absent. Mystacial whiskers were important for performance in both groups; however, genal whiskers only contributed to performance in EB animals. EB opossums significantly outperformed SC opossums in discrimination accuracy, being more sensitive to textural differences by ~75 m smaller. Our results support behavioral compensation following early blindness using tactile inputs, especially the whisker system.
bioRxiv Subject Collection: Neuroscience