Associative representational plasticity in the auditory cortex: a synthesis of two disciplines

Learn Mem. 2007 Jan 3;14(1-2):1-16. doi: 10.1101/lm.421807. Print 2007 Jan-Feb.


Historically, sensory systems have been largely ignored as potential loci of information storage in the neurobiology of learning and memory. They continued to be relegated to the role of "sensory analyzers" despite consistent findings of associatively induced enhancement of responses in primary sensory cortices to behaviorally important signal stimuli, such as conditioned stimuli (CS), during classical conditioning. This disregard may have been promoted by the fact that the brain was interrogated using only one or two stimuli, e.g., a CS(+) sometimes with a CS(-), providing little insight into the specificity of neural plasticity. This review describes a novel approach that synthesizes the basic experimental designs of the experimental psychology of learning with that of sensory neurophysiology. By probing the brain with a large stimulus set before and after learning, this unified method has revealed that associative processes produce highly specific changes in the receptive fields of cells in the primary auditory cortex (A1). This associative representational plasticity (ARP) selectively facilitates responses to tonal CSs at the expense of other frequencies, producing tuning shifts toward and to the CS and expanded representation of CS frequencies in the tonotopic map of A1. ARPs have the major characteristics of associative memory: They are highly specific, discriminative, rapidly acquired, exhibit consolidation over hours and days, and can be retained indefinitely. Evidence to date suggests that ARPs encode the level of acquired behavioral importance of stimuli. The nucleus basalis cholinergic system is sufficient both for the induction of ARPs and the induction of specific auditory memory. Investigation of ARPs has attracted workers with diverse backgrounds, often resulting in behavioral approaches that yield data that are difficult to interpret. The advantages of studying associative representational plasticity are emphasized, as is the need for greater behavioral sophistication.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Association*
  • Auditory Cortex / physiology*
  • Basal Nucleus of Meynert / physiology
  • Behavior / physiology
  • Brain Mapping
  • Conditioning, Classical / physiology
  • Humans
  • Learning / physiology*
  • Memory / physiology*
  • Models, Neurological
  • Neuronal Plasticity*