It is still not known how the ‘rudimentary’ movements of fetuses and infants are transformed into the coordinated, flexible and adaptive movements of adults. In addressing this important issue, we consider a behavior that has been perennially viewed as a functionless by-product of a dreaming brain: the jerky limb movements called myoclonic twitches. Recent work has identified the neural mechanisms that produce twitching as well as those that convey sensory feedback from twitching limbs to the spinal cord and brain. In turn, these mechanistic insights have helped inspire new ideas about the functional roles that twitching might play in the self-organization of spinal and supraspinal sensorimotor circuits. Striking support for these ideas is coming from the field of developmental robotics: when twitches are mimicked in robot models of the musculoskeletal system, the basic neural circuitry undergoes self-organization. Mutually inspired biological and synthetic approaches promise not only to produce better robots, but also to solve fundamental problems concerning the developmental origins of sensorimotor maps in the spinal cord and brain.
Twitching in Sensorimotor Development from Sleeping Rats to Robots
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