Early development of the somatotopic map and barrel patterning in rat somatosensory cortex

J Comp Neurol. 1994 Aug 1;346(1):80-96. doi: 10.1002/cne.903460106.


Several lines of evidence implicate a crucial role for thalamic afferents from the ventroposterior nucleus (VP) in the development of barrels and their characteristic pattern in the primary somatosensory cortex (S1) of rodents. We sought to determine the stage in development when VP thalamocortical afferents are first distributed in a periphery-related pattern and the sequence of events that culminate in a mature pattern. Using acetylcholinesterase (AChE) histochemistry, an early marker for VP thalamocortical afferents, and the anterograde axon tracer DiI, we show that VP thalamocortical afferents become distributed into a periphery-related pattern earlier than was previously reported, including their parcellation into a barrel-related pattern that mirrors the distribution of sensory hairs on the face. The earliest periphery-related patterning observed is transiently present in the deep cortical layers prior to the emergence of layer 4, the layer in which barrels later develop. AChE histochemistry reveals a clear sequence of maturation of the barrel pattern in the distribution of VP afferents: An initially patternless distribution of AChE-reactive afferents is followed by their distribution in a nascent trigeminal representation, from which rows subsequently emerge; barrel-related clusters of afferents then emerge from the rows. This process begins before birth, and the transition from row-related to barrel-related distributions of VP afferents is evident during the first postnatal day (P0). This demonstration of a periphery-related pattern in developing rat S1 precedes by about 2 days that revealed by any other marker reported to delineate barrels. These findings confirm that VP thalamocortical afferents are the first barrel component to have a periphery-related pattern and support the hypothesis that thalamocortical afferents provide to immature S1 the patterning information that initiates the formation of barrels and their characteristic array. Furthermore because these findings show an earlier onset for barrel formation than was previously realized, they necessitate a reevaluation of conclusions drawn from experiments examining developmental plasticity in barrel patterning.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Acetylcholinesterase / analysis
  • Afferent Pathways / physiology
  • Animals
  • Brain Mapping / methods*
  • Carbocyanines
  • Embryonic and Fetal Development / physiology
  • Histocytochemistry
  • Neuronal Plasticity / physiology
  • Rats / embryology
  • Rats / physiology*
  • Rats, Sprague-Dawley
  • Somatosensory Cortex / embryology
  • Somatosensory Cortex / physiology*
  • Somatosensory Cortex / ultrastructure
  • Thalamus / enzymology
  • Thalamus / physiology*


  • Carbocyanines
  • 3,3'-dioctadecylindocarbocyanine
  • Acetylcholinesterase