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ECSPLAIN Report Summary

Project ID: 338866
Funded under: FP7-IDEAS-ERC
Country: Italy

Periodic Report Summary 2 - ECSPLAIN (Early Cortical Sensory Plasticity and Adaptability in Human Adults)

This project aims to study the underlying neural mechanisms of adult human plasticity, particularly how it intervenes in important processes such as response optimization, auto-calibration and recovery of function. We are also interested in studying the development and plasticity in newborns, providing benchmark data to assess residual plasticity of older humans.
The project has already achieved several important knowledge. We have devised a non-invasive technique to study plasticity in adults, involving short-term visual deprivation, and its recovery. We have shown that this deprivation acts by causing a reduction of the cortical inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA, which is often associated with homeostatic plasticity. Furthermore, we show that the plasticity measured in this way can be potentiated by physical exercise, which may have important practical ramifications for rehabilitation programs.
We have extended the technique to study children with amblyopia (lazy eye). We have shown that the amount of plasticity revealed by this technique predicts the level of acuity recovered in the amblyopic eye after prolonged patching therapy, useful in devising patching regimes. We are also beginning to experiment with reverse patching – patching the weak eye – with promising results.
We have shown that visual plasticity exists in adults even after many years of blindness. Restoration of vision with retinal prosthesis (ARGUS II) and intensive training induces a strong increase in BOLD activity in primary visual cortex that can be exploited in the development of new prosthetic implants.
Finally, we have used fMRI to study very young infants, as young as one month of age. We found that the human infant cortex is surprisingly mature in elaborating visual motion at 8 weeks of age. These data provide for the first time the functional localization of cortical areas in human newborns, which could have important clinical applications.
These studies, together with many others, have been published in good journals, producing 53 original papers that are freely available to the public.

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