Sensitization is a learning process that is considered non-associative. This phenomenon is where repeatedly applying a stimulus results in the amplification of a response. It is often characterized by the enhancement of response to a different class of stimuli in addition to the one that is being repeated. For instance, repetition of a painful stimulus might cause a person to be more responsive to loud noise.
Eric Kandel was one of the first scientists to study the neurological basis of sensitization, conducting all kinds of experiments in the 60s and 70s on the gill reflexes of a particular species of sea slug. Kandel and his colleagues habituated the reflex, initially weakening the response by touching the animal’s siphon on a regular basis. They then subjected the sea slug to electrical stimulus to the tail with a slight touch to the siphon, hence causing the gill to withdraw. After this, a feeble touch to the siphon alone brought about a strong gill withdrawal reflex, and this sensitization effect would last for several days in the animal. In 2000, Eric Kandel was even awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for this remarkable discovery in neuronal learning processes.
Cross-sensitization is a phenomenon where sensitization to a particular stimulus is generalized to a certain stimulus, hence resulting in the amplification of a certain response to both the original stimulus as well as the related stimulus. For instance, cross-sensitization to the behavioral and neural effects of street drugs are characterized well, like in the case of sensitization to the locomotor response of a stimulant which results in cross-sensitization to the motor-activating effects of other stimulants.
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