Improvement on spatial tasks is observed during a late, postnatal developmental period (PND18 - PND24). The purpose of the current work was 1) to determine whether the emergence of spatial-behavioral function was based on the ability to generate appropriate behavioral output; 2) to assess whether mossy fiber connectivity patterns preceded the emergence of spatial-behavioral function; 3) to explore functional changes in the hippocampus to determine whether activity in hippocampal networks occurred in a training-dependent or developmentally-dependent fashion. To these ends, male, Long Evans rats were trained on a spatial water or dry maze task for one day (PND16, PND18 or PND20) then euthanized. Training on these 2 tasks with opposing behavioral demands (swimming versus exploration) was hypothesized to control for behavioral topology. Only at PND20 was there evidence of spatial-behavioral function for both tasks. Examination of synaptophysin staining in the CA3 region (i.e., mossy fiber projections) revealed enhanced connectivity patterns that preceded the emergence of spatial behavior. Analysis of c-Fos labeling (functional changes) revealed developmentally-dependent increases in c-Fos positive cells in the dentate gyrus, CA3 and CA1 regions whereas training-dependent increases were noted in the CA3 and CA1 regions for the water-maze trained groups. Results suggest that changes in mossy fiber connectivity in association with enhanced hippocampal functioning precede the emergence of spatial behavior observed at PND20. The combination of neuroanatomical and behavioural results confirms the hypothesis that this time represents a sensitive period for hippocampal development and modification and the emergence of spatial/ cognitive function.
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