Enriched social and physical housing produces many molecular, anatomical, electrophysiological and behavior benefits even in adult animals. Much less is known of its effects on cortical electrophysiology, especially in how sensory cortex encodes the altered environment, and extant studies have generally been restricted to neurons in input laminae in sensory cortex. To extend the understanding of how an enriched environment alters the way in which cortex views the world, we investigated enrichment-induced changes in neuronal encoding of sensory stimuli across all laminae of the rat barrel cortex receiving input from the face whisker tactile system. Animals were housed in Enriched (n = 13) or Isolated housing (n = 13) conditions for 8 weeks before extracellular recordings were obtained from barrel cortex in response to simple whisker deflections and whisker motions modeling movements seen in awake animals undertaking a variety of different tasks. Enrichment resulted in increases in neuronal responses to all stimuli, ranging from those modeling exploratory behavior through to discrimination behaviors. These increases were seen throughout the cortex from supragranular layers through to input Layer 4 and for some stimuli, in infragranular Layer 5. The observed enrichment-induced effect is consistent with the postulate that enrichment causes shift in cortical excitatory/inhibitory balance, and we demonstrate this is greatest in supragranular layers. However, we also report that the effects are non-selective for stimulus parameters across a range of stimuli except for one modeling the likely use of whiskers by the rats in the enriched housing.
Keywords: EE; barrel cortex; electrophysiology; hyperexcitability.