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Front. Neurol., 01 November 2010 |

Beyond dreams: do sleep-related movements contribute to brain development?

  • Department of Psychology and Delta Center, The University of Iowa, Iowa City, IA, USA

Conventional wisdom has long held that the twitches of sleeping infants and adults are by-products of a dreaming brain. With the discovery of active (or REM) sleep in the 1950s and the recognition soon thereafter that active sleep is characterized by inhibition of motor outflow, researchers elaborated on conventional wisdom and concluded that sleep-related twitches are epiphenomena that result from incomplete blockade of dream-related cortical activity. This view persists despite the fact that twitching is unaffected in infants and adults when the cortex is disconnected from the brainstem. In 1966, Roffwarg and colleagues introduced the ontogenetic hypothesis, which addressed the preponderance of active sleep in early infancy. This hypothesis posited that the brainstem mechanisms that produce active sleep provide direct ascending stimulation to the forebrain and descending stimulation to the musculature, thereby promoting brain and neuromuscular development. However, this hypothesis and the subsequent work that tested it did not directly address the developmental significance of twitching or sensory feedback as a contributor to activity-dependent development. Here I review recent findings that have inspired an elaboration of the ontogenetic hypothesis. Specifically, in addition to direct brainstem activation of cortex during active sleep, sensory feedback arising from limb twitches produces discrete and substantial activation of somatosensory cortex and, beyond that, of hippocampus. Delineating how twitching during active sleep contributes to the establishment, refinement, and maintenance of neural circuits may aid our understanding of the early developmental events that make sensorimotor integration possible. In addition, twitches may prove to be sensitive and powerful tools for assessing somatosensory function in humans across the lifespan as well as functional recovery in individuals with injuries or conditions that affect sensorimotor function.

Keywords: REM sleep, spontaneous activity, myoclonic twitching, sensorimotor, cortex, hippocampus, proprioception, REM behavior disorder

Citation: Blumberg MS (2010) Beyond dreams: do sleep-related movements contribute to brain development? Front. Neur. 1:140. doi: 10.3389/fneur.2010.00140

Received: 21 August 2010; Accepted: 08 October 2010;
Published online: 01 November 2010.

Edited by:

Milton Kramer, University of Illinois-Chicago, USA

Reviewed by:

James F. Pagel, The American Academy of Family Physicians, USA
Milton Kramer, University of Illinois-Chicago, USA

Copyright: © 2010 Blumberg. This is an open-access article subject to an exclusive license agreement between the authors and the Frontiers Research Foundation, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original authors and source are credited.

*Correspondence: Mark S. Blumberg, Department of Psychology, University of Iowa, E11 Seashore Hall, Iowa City, IA 52242, USA. e-mail: