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PLoS Biology

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Karlsson KÆ, Gall AJ, Mohns EJ, Seelke AMH, Blumberg MS (2005) The Neural Substrates of Infant Sleep in Rats. PLOS Biology 3(5): e143.


Sleep is a poorly understood behavior that predominates during infancy but is studied almost exclusively in adults. One perceived impediment to investigations of sleep early in ontogeny is the absence of state-dependent neocortical activity. Nonetheless, in infant rats, sleep is reliably characterized by the presence of tonic (i.e., muscle atonia) and phasic (i.e., myoclonic twitching) components; the neural circuitry underlying these components, however, is unknown. Recently, we described a medullary inhibitory area (MIA) in week-old rats that is necessary but not sufficient for the normal expression of atonia. Here we report that the infant MIA receives projections from areas containing neurons that exhibit state-dependent activity. Specifically, neurons within these areas, including the subcoeruleus (SubLC), pontis oralis (PO), and dorsolateral pontine tegmentum (DLPT), exhibit discharge profiles that suggest causal roles in the modulation of muscle tone and the production of myoclonic twitches. Indeed, lesions in the SubLC and PO decreased the expression of muscle atonia without affecting twitching (resulting in "REM sleep without atonia"), whereas lesions of the DLPT increased the expression of atonia while decreasing the amount of twitching. Thus, the neural substrates of infant sleep are strikingly similar to those of adults, a surprising finding in light of theories that discount the contribution of supraspinal neural elements to sleep before the onset of state-dependent neocortical activity.