Mammalian sensory circuits become refined over development in an activity-dependent manner. Retinal ganglion cell (RGC) axons from each eye first map to their target in the geniculate and then segregate into eye-specific layers by the removal and addition of axon branches. Once segregation is complete, robust functional remodeling continues as the number of afferent inputs to each geniculate neuron decreases from many to a few. It is widely assumed that large-scale axon retraction underlies this later phase of circuit refinement. On the contrary, RGC axons remain stable during functional pruning. Instead, presynaptic boutons grow in size and cluster during this process. Moreover, they exhibit dynamic spatial reorganization in response to sensory experience. Surprisingly, axon complexity decreases only after the completion of the thalamic critical period. Therefore, dynamic bouton redistribution along a broad axon backbone represents an unappreciated form of plasticity underlying developmental wiring and rewiring in the CNS.
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