the process of synapse addition operates throughout the entire human life span and is especially important in later life. This process is not only sensitive to experience, it is actually driven by experience. Synapse addition probably lies at the base of some, or even most, forms of memory. As discussed later in this chapter, the work of cognitive scientists and education researchers is contributing to our understanding of synapse addition.

Wiring the Brain

The role of experience in wiring the brain has been illuminated by research on the visual cortex in animals and humans. In adults, the inputs entering the brain from the two eyes terminate separately in adjacent regions of the visual cortex. Subsequently, the two inputs converge on the next set of neurons. People are not born with this neural pattern. But through the normal processes of seeing, the brain sorts things out.

Neuroscientists discovered this phenomenon by studying humans with visual abnormalities, such as a cataract or a muscle irregularity that deviates the eye. If the eye is deprived of the appropriate visual experience at an early stage of development (because of such abnormalities), it loses its ability to transmit visual information into the central nervous system. When the eye that was incapable of seeing at a very early age was corrected later, the correction alone did not help—the afflicted eye still could not see. When researchers looked at the brains of monkeys in which similar kinds of experimental manipulations had been made, they found that the normal eye had captured a larger than average amount of neurons, and the impeded eye had correspondingly lost those connections.

This phenomenon only occurs if an eye is prevented from experiencing normal vision very early in development. The period at which the eye is sensitive corresponds to the time of synapse overproduction and loss in the visual cortex. Out of the initial mix of overlapping inputs, the neural connections that belong to the eye that sees normally tend to survive, while the connections that belong to the abnormal eye wither away. When both eyes see normally, each eye loses some of the overlapping connections, but both keep a normal number.

In the case of deprivation from birth, one eye completely takes over. The later the deprivation occurs after birth, the less effect it has. By about 6 months of age, closing one eye for weeks on end will produce no effect whatsoever. The critical period has passed; the connections have already sorted themselves out, and the overlapping connections have been eliminated.

This anomaly has helped scientists gain insights into normal visual development. In normal development, the pathway for each eye is sculpted (or “pruned”) down to the right number of connections, and those connec-



The National Academies | 500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001
Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement