A Mouse Model of Visual Perceptual Learning Reveals Alterations in Neuronal Coding and Dendritic Spine Density in the Visual Cortex

Front Behav Neurosci. 2016 Mar 10;10:42. doi: 10.3389/fnbeh.2016.00042. eCollection 2016.


Visual perceptual learning (VPL) can improve spatial vision in normally sighted and visually impaired individuals. Although previous studies of humans and large animals have explored the neural basis of VPL, elucidation of the underlying cellular and molecular mechanisms remains a challenge. Owing to the advantages of molecular genetic and optogenetic manipulations, the mouse is a promising model for providing a mechanistic understanding of VPL. Here, we thoroughly evaluated the effects and properties of VPL on spatial vision in C57BL/6J mice using a two-alternative, forced-choice visual water task. Briefly, the mice underwent prolonged training at near the individual threshold of contrast or spatial frequency (SF) for pattern discrimination or visual detection for 35 consecutive days. Following training, the contrast-threshold trained mice showed an 87% improvement in contrast sensitivity (CS) and a 55% gain in visual acuity (VA). Similarly, the SF-threshold trained mice exhibited comparable and long-lasting improvements in VA and significant gains in CS over a wide range of SFs. Furthermore, learning largely transferred across eyes and stimulus orientations. Interestingly, learning could transfer from a pattern discrimination task to a visual detection task, but not vice versa. We validated that this VPL fully restored VA in adult amblyopic mice and old mice. Taken together, these data indicate that mice, as a species, exhibit reliable VPL. Intrinsic signal optical imaging revealed that mice with perceptual training had higher cut-off SFs in primary visual cortex (V1) than those without perceptual training. Moreover, perceptual training induced an increase in the dendritic spine density in layer 2/3 pyramidal neurons of V1. These results indicated functional and structural alterations in V1 during VPL. Overall, our VPL mouse model will provide a platform for investigating the neurobiological basis of VPL.

Keywords: contrast sensitivity; discrimination learning; mouse behavior; mouse models; mouse primary visual cortex; visual acuity; visual perceptual learning; visual water task.