The ability to detect and discriminate sensory stimuli greatly improves with age. To better understand the neural basis of perceptual development, we studied the postnatal development of sensory responses in cortical neurons. Specifically, we analyzed neuronal responses to single-whisker deflections in the posteromedial barrel subfield (PMBSF) of the rat primary somatosensory cortex. Responses of PMBSF neurons showed a long onset latency and duration in the first postnatal week, but became fast and transient over the next few weeks. Trial-by-trial variations of single neuron responses did not change systematically with age, whereas the covariation of responses across trials between neurons (noise correlation) was high on postnatal day 5-6 (P5-6), and gradually decreased with age to near zero by P30-31. Computational analyses showed that pooled responses of multiple neurons became more reliable across stimulus trials with age. The period over which these changes occurred corresponds to the period when rats develop a full set of exploratory whisking behavior. We suggest that reduced noise correlation across a population of neurons, in addition to sharpening the temporal characteristics of single neuron responses, may help improve behavioral performance.
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