Indexed on: 27 Jul '10Published on: 27 Jul '10Published in: Neuroscience
Environmental enrichment of laboratory animals leads to multi-faceted changes to physiology, health and disease prognosis. An important and under-appreciated factor in enhancing cognition through environmental manipulation may be improved basic sensory function. Previous studies have highlighted changes in cortical sensory map plasticity but have used techniques such as electrophysiology, which suffer from poor spatial resolution, or optical imaging of intrinsic signals, which suffers from low temporal resolution. The current study attempts to overcome these limitations by combining voltage-sensitive dye imaging with somatosensory-evoked potential (SEP) recordings: the specific aim was to investigate sensory function in barrel cortex using multi-frequency whisker stimulation under urethane anaesthesia. Three groups of rats were used that each experienced a different level of behavioural or environmental enrichment. We found that enrichment increased all SEP response components subsequent to the initial thalamocortical input, but only when evoked by single stimuli; the thalamocortical component remained unchanged across all animal groups. The optical signal exhibited no changes in amplitude or latency between groups, resembling the thalamocortical component of the SEP response. Permanent and extensive changes to housing conditions conferred no further enhancement to sensory function above that produced by the milder enrichment of regular handling and behavioural testing, a finding with implications for improvements in animal welfare through practical changes to animal husbandry.