Experience-dependent functional plasticity is a hallmark of the primary visual system, but it is not known if analogous mechanisms govern development of the circadian visual system. Here we investigated molecular, anatomical, and behavioral consequences of complete monocular light deprivation during extended intervals of postnatal development in Syrian hamsters. Hamsters were raised in constant darkness and opaque contact lenses were applied shortly after eye opening and prior to the introduction of a light-dark cycle. In adulthood, previously-occluded eyes were challenged with visual stimuli. Whereas image-formation and motion-detection were markedly impaired by monocular occlusion, neither entrainment to a light-dark cycle, nor phase-resetting responses to shifts in the light-dark cycle were affected by prior monocular deprivation. Cholera toxin-b subunit fluorescent tract-tracing revealed that in monocularly-deprived hamsters the density of fibers projecting from the retina to the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) was comparable regardless of whether such fibers originated from occluded or exposed eyes. In addition, long-term monocular deprivation did not attenuate light-induced c-Fos expression in the SCN. Thus, in contrast to the thalamocortical projections of the primary visual system, retinohypothalamic projections terminating in the SCN develop into normal adult patterns and mediate circadian responses to light largely independent of light experience during development. The data identify a categorical difference in the requirement for light input during postnatal development between circadian and non-circadian visual systems
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