Developmental maturation of millimeter-scale functional networks across brain areas

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Interacting with the environment to process sensory information, generate perceptions, and shape behavior engages neural networks in brain areas with highly varied representations, ranging from unimodal sensory cortices to higher-order association areas. Recent work suggests a much greater degree of commonality across areas, with distributed and modular networks present in both sensory and non-sensory areas during early development. However, it is currently unknown whether this initially common modular structure undergoes an equally common developmental trajectory, or whether such a modular functional organization persists in some areas—such as primary visual cortex—but not others. Here we examine the development of network organization across diverse cortical regions in ferrets of both sexes using in vivo widefield calcium imaging of spontaneous activity. We find that all regions examined, including both primary sensory cortices (visual, auditory, and somatosensory—V1, A1, and S1, respectively) and higher order association areas (prefrontal and posterior parietal cortices) exhibit a largely similar pattern of changes over an approximately 3 week developmental period spanning eye opening and the transition to predominantly externally-driven sensory activity. We find that both a modular functional organization and millimeter-scale correlated networks remain present across all cortical areas examined. These networks weakened over development in most cortical areas, but strengthened in V1. Overall, the conserved maintenance of modular organization across different cortical areas suggests a common pathway of network refinement, and suggests that a modular organization—known to encode functional representations in visual areas—may be similarly engaged in highly diverse brain areas.


Different areas of the mature brain encode vastly different representations of the world. This study shows that a modular functional organization where nearby neurons participate in similar functional networks is shared across different brain areas not only during early development, but also as the brain matures where it remains a shared feature that shapes neural activity. The largely conserved trajectory of developmental changes across brain areas suggests that similar circuit mechanisms may drive this maturation. This implies that the large literature on developing cortical circuits, which is largely focused on sensory areas, may also apply more broadly, and that perturbations during development that impinge on any such shared mechanisms may produce deficits that extend across multiple brain systems.

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