What causes critical periods (CPs) to open? For the best-studied case, ocular dominance plasticity in primary visual cortex in response to monocular deprivation (MD), the maturation of inhibition is necessary and sufficient. How does inhibition open the CP? We present a theory: the transition from pre-CP to CP plasticity arises because inhibition preferentially suppresses responses to spontaneous relative to visually driven input activity, switching learning cues from internal to external sources. This differs from previous proposals in (1) arguing that the CP can open without changes in plasticity mechanisms when activity patterns become more sensitive to sensory experience through circuit development, and (2) explaining not simply a transition from no plasticity to plasticity, but a change in outcome of MD-induced plasticity from pre-CP to CP. More broadly, hierarchical organization of sensory-motor pathways may develop through a cascade of CPs induced as circuit maturation progresses from "lower" to "higher" cortical areas.
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