Developing cortex generates endogenous activity that modulates the formation of functional units, but how this activity is altered to support mature function is poorly understood. Using recordings from the visual cortex of preterm human infants and neonatal rats, we report a "bursting" period of visual responsiveness during which the weak retinal output is amplified by endogenous network oscillations, enabling a primitive form of vision. This period ends shortly before delivery in humans and eye opening in rodents with an abrupt switch to the mature visual response. The switch is causally linked to the emergence of an activated state of continuous cortical activity dependent on the ascending neuromodulatory systems involved in arousal. This switch is sensory system specific but experience independent and also involves maturation of retinal processing. Thus, the early development of visual processing is governed by a conserved, intrinsic program that switches thalamocortical response properties in anticipation of patterned vision.
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