Complex neural circuits in the mammalian brain develop through a combination of genetic instruction and activity-dependent refinement. The relative role of these factors and the form of neuronal activity responsible for circuit development is a matter of significant debate. In the mammalian visual system, retinal ganglion cell projections to the brain are mapped with respect to retinotopic location and eye of origin. We manipulated the pattern of spontaneous retinal waves present during development without changing overall activity levels through the transgenic expression of β2-nicotinic acetylcholine receptors in retinal ganglion cells of mice. We used this manipulation to demonstrate that spontaneous retinal activity is not just permissive, but instructive in the emergence of eye-specific segregation and retinotopic refinement in the mouse visual system. This suggests that specific patterns of spontaneous activity throughout the developing brain are essential in the emergence of specific and distinct patterns of neuronal connectivity.
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