Sensory experience can reorganize cortical sensory representations in an epoch of early development. During this period, cortical sensory neurons may shift their response selectivity and become tuned to more frequently occurring stimuli. Although this enlarged cortical representation is believed to underlie improved sensory processing of the experienced stimuli, its precise perceptual consequences are still unknown. We show that rearing rats in a single-frequency tonal environment results in enlarged cortical representations of the frequencies near that of the experienced tone, but the animals are impaired in perceptual discrimination of the over-represented frequencies. By contrast, discrimination of the neighboring under-represented frequencies is substantially improved. Computational analysis indicated that the altered perceptual ability could be fully accounted for by the sound exposure-induced reorganization of cortical primary auditory representations. These results indicate that early experience shapes sensory perception. The same plasticity processes may be important in optimizing phonemic representations in humans.
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