Science Daily reports on a University of Maryland study that shows that (for mice at least) spending a week in darkness resets certain brain circuits, and in particular boosts the sensitivity of the auditory cortex:
Young brains wire themselves according to the sounds they hear frequently, allocating areas of the auditory cortex for specific frequencies based on what they are used to hearing. The researchers found that, in adult mice, a week in the dark also redistributed the allocation of space to different frequencies. In the areas of the auditory cortex they examined, the researchers saw an increase in the proportion of neurons that were sensitive to high and low frequencies and a decrease in proportion of neurons that were sensitive to mid-range frequencies.
“We don’t know why we are seeing these patterns,” [UMD biology professor Patrick] Kanold said. “We speculate that it may have to do with what the mice are paying attention to while they are in the dark. Maybe they pay attention to the noises or voices from the other mice, or maybe they’re paying more attention to the footsteps they are making.”
Kanold said his next steps include manipulating the sounds the mice are exposed to during the darkness phase of the experiment and monitoring brain activity to determine what aspects of their soundscape the mice are listening to. This will help the researchers understand the role of focus and attention in promoting change to the auditory neurons. Such information could be very useful in helping people adapt to cochlear implants or hearing aids.