Chondroitin sulphate proteoglycans in the extracellular matrix restrict plasticity in the adult central nervous system and their digestion with chondroitinase reactivates plasticity. However the structures in the extracellular matrix that restrict plasticity are unknown. There are many changes in the extracellular matrix as critical periods for plasticity close, including changes in chondroitin sulphate proteoglycan core protein levels, changes in glycosaminoglycan sulphation and the appearance of dense chondroitin sulphate proteoglycan-containing perineuronal nets around many neurons. We show that formation of perineuronal nets is triggered by neuronal production of cartilage link protein Crtl1 (Hapln1), which is up-regulated in the visual cortex as perineuronal nets form during development and after dark rearing. Mice lacking Crtl1 have attenuated perineuronal nets, but the overall levels of chondroitin sulphate proteoglycans and their pattern of glycan sulphation are unchanged. Crtl1 knockout animals retain juvenile levels of ocular dominance plasticity and their visual acuity remains sensitive to visual deprivation. In the sensory pathway, axons in knockout animals but not controls sprout into the party denervated cuneate nucleus. The organization of chondroitin sulphate proteoglycan into perineuronal nets is therefore the key event in the control of central nervous system plasticity by the extracellular matrix.