During childhood, the human brain is more readily able to learn than during adulthood. During this period, the brain has an improved ability to form new connections, a state called neuroplasticity. Now neuroscientists at Children's Hospital Boston have discovered a protein called Otx2, which appears to trigger this heightened state of brain plasticity.
Their research, conducted in mice, demonstrates that Otx2, which is created in the retina, travels into the brain in response to stimuli and triggers the brain's ability to form new neural connections. In a series of experiments, they showed that mice kept in the dark—thus not triggering the sensory receptors to create Otx2—the Otx2 remains in the retinas, not migrating to the brain, preventing a type of cell known as parvalbumin cells, which are responsible for visual processing, from maturing.
Further research will be needed to determine if these results are applicable to other parts of the brain besides the parvalbumin cells and whether these results are also applicable to humans.