We examined whether the postsynaptic responses of cells in the principal sensory nucleus of the trigeminal nerve (PrV) are subject to long-term changes in synaptic strength, and if such changes were correlated the whisker-specific patterning during and just after the critical period for pattern formation. We used an in vitro brainstem preparation in which the trigeminal ganglion (TG) and PrV remained attached. By electrically activating TG afferents, we evoked large-amplitude extracellular field potentials. These responses were postsynaptic in origin and blocked by the glutamate antagonist, DNQX. At P1, a time when barrelettes are consolidating, high frequency stimulation of their afferents led to an immediate (<1 min) and long-lasting (> or =90 min) reduction (35%) in the amplitude of the evoked response. At P3-7, when the pattern of barrelettes have stabilized, the same form of tetanus led to an immediate and long-lasting increase (40%) in the amplitude of the response. Both forms of synaptic plasticity were mediated by the activation of L-type Ca(2+) channels. Application of the L-type channel blocker, nitrendipine, led to a complete blockade of any the tetanus induced changes. These associative processes may regulate the patterning and maintenance of whisker-specific patterns in the brainstem trigeminal nuclei.