Before the onset of sensory transduction, developing neural circuits spontaneously generate correlated activity in distinct spatial and temporal patterns. During this period of patterned activity, sensory maps develop and initial coarse connections are refined, which are critical steps in the establishment of adult neural circuits. Over the last decade, there has been substantial evidence that altering the pattern of spontaneous activity disrupts refinement, but the mechanistic understanding of this process remains incomplete. In this review, we discuss recent experimental and theoretical progress toward the process of activity-dependent refinement, focusing on circuits in the visual, auditory, and motor systems. Although many outstanding questions remain, the combination of several novel approaches has brought us closer to a comprehensive understanding of how complex neural circuits are established by patterned spontaneous activity during development.
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