Large-scale neuronal networks integrating several cortical areas mediate the complex functions of the brain such as sensorimotor integration. Little is known about the functional development of these networks and the maturational processes by which distant networks become functionally connected. We addressed this question in the postnatal rat sensorimotor system. Using epicranial multielectrode grids that span most of the cortical surface and intracortical electrodes, we show that sensory evoked cortical responses continuously maturate throughout the first 3 weeks with the strongest developmental changes occurring in a very short time around postnatal day 13 (P13). Before P13, whisker stimulation evokes slow, initially surface-negative activity restricted mostly to the lateral parietal area of the contralateral hemisphere. In a narrow time window of ~48 h around P13, a new early, sharp surface-positive component emerges that coincides with subsequent propagation of activity to sensory and motor areas of both hemispheres. Our data show that this new component developing at the end of the second week corresponds principally to functional maturation of the supragranular cortical layers and appears to be crucial for the functional associations in the large-scale sensorimotor cortical network. It goes along with the onset of whisking behavior, as well as major synaptic and functional changes within the S1 cortex that are known to develop during this period.
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