Early in life, neural circuits are highly susceptible to outside influences. The organization of the primary auditory cortex (A1) in particular is governed by acoustic experience during the critical period, an epoch near the beginning of postnatal development throughout which cortical synapses and networks are especially plastic. This neonatal sensitivity to the pattern of sensory inputs is believed to be essential for constructing stable and adequately adapted representations of the auditory world and for the acquisition of language skills by children. One important principle of synaptic organization in mature brains is the balance between excitation and inhibition, which controls receptive field structure and spatiotemporal flow of neural activity, but it is unknown how and when this excitatory-inhibitory balance is initially established and calibrated. Here we use whole-cell recording to determine the processes underlying the development of synaptic receptive fields in rat A1. We find that, immediately after the onset of hearing, sensory-evoked excitatory and inhibitory responses are equally strong, although inhibition is less stimulus-selective and mismatched with excitation. However, during the third week of postnatal development, excitation and inhibition become highly correlated. Patterned sensory stimulation drives coordinated synaptic changes across receptive fields, rapidly improves excitatory-inhibitory coupling and prevents further exposure-induced modifications. Thus, the pace of cortical synaptic receptive field development is set by progressive, experience-dependent refinement of intracortical inhibition.
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