The patterning of synaptic connections during development is thought to be influenced by the correlation of neuronal impulse activity. N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) receptors have been implicated in the reorganization of thalamocortical afferents in the visual system. The topographic mapping of the periphery of sensory systems onto the somatosensory cortex in the whisker-barrel field of rodents has served as another important paradigm in the study of extrinsic influences on synaptic rearrangements. In a search for the molecular cues that may contribute to synaptic plasticity, we have investigated the distribution of the glia-derived extracellular matrix glycoprotein tenascin-C, which is highly expressed during the formation of the barrel field map around birth and delineates the boundaries between barrel fields after segregation of afferent inputs. Here we show that systemic and local application of NMDA receptor antagonists at postnatal day 2 inhibited the down-regulation of tenascin mRNA and protein by postnatal day 6 and prevented the appearance of tenascin-positive barrel field boundaries. Furthermore, barrels were not distinguishable by Nissl staining, and segregation of thalamocortical afferents as monitored by anterograde Dil tracing and acetylcholinesterase histochemistry was not complete. These observations indicate that expression of tenascin-C and segregation of afferent inputs are modified by NMDA receptor-dependent neuronal activity.