Spontaneous activity in the sensory periphery drives infant brain activity and is thought to contribute to the formation of retinotopic and somatotopic maps. In infant rats during active (or REM) sleep, brainstem-generated spontaneous activity triggers hundreds of thousands of skeletal muscle twitches each day; sensory feedback from the resulting limb movements is a primary activator of forebrain activity. The rodent whisker system, with its precise isomorphic mapping of individual whiskers to discrete brain areas, has been a key contributor to our understanding of somatotopic maps and developmental plasticity. But although whisker movements are controlled by dedicated skeletal muscles, spontaneous whisker activity has not been entertained as a contributing factor to the development of this system. Here we report in 3- to 6-day-old rats that whiskers twitch rapidly and asynchronously during active sleep; furthermore, neurons in whisker thalamus exhibit bursts of activity that are tightly associated with twitches but occur infrequently during waking. Finally, we observed barrel-specific cortical activity during periods of twitching. This is the first report of self-generated, sleep-related twitches in the developing whisker system, a sensorimotor system that is unique for the precision with which it can be experimentally manipulated. The discovery of whisker twitching will allow us to attain a better understanding of the contributions of peripheral sensory activity to somatosensory integration and plasticity in the developing nervous system.
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