Twitches during sleep may help infants to learn new movements. Image: Kapa65 (CC0 Public domain)

The unconscious world of twitches

Studies of infant rats show that the brain treats sleep twitches differently from awake movements.

Many parts of our body twitch while we are asleep and these movements are especially common in babies. Unlike the movements we make while awake, twitches during sleep are brief, staccato-like movements that appear to be aimless — but they are not, as traditionally believed, mere remnants of dreams. Rather, it is believed that twitches help infants learn about their bodies and how they move.

When we are awake, the brain routinely compares information from the areas of the brain that produce movements with information coming in from the senses, so that we are better able to anticipate and control the movements we make. However, this comparison appears to be suspended during twitching: in 2014, researchers studying infant rats reported that twitches, although self-produced, are treated by the brain as if they are unexpected or surprising.

To confirm that the brain treats twitches during sleep differently from movements made while awake, Alexandre Tiriac and Mark Blumberg — who were involved in the previous study — recorded electrical activity in the brains of infant rats while they were awake and asleep. These experiments show that a brain area known as the external cuneate nucleus (ECN) was mostly inactive when awake rats vigorously moved their front legs, but became highly active when these same legs twitched during sleep. Drugs that disinhibited electrical activity in the ECN unmasked leg movement signals produced by awake rats, but these same drugs had no effect on leg movement signals produced during twitching. Thus, these experiments indicate that, when infant rats are awake, the ECN compares signals from the senses with signals from the parts of the brain that produce movements, a key feature of motor control. However, when the rats are asleep and twitching, the comparison mechanism is disengaged and sensory signals are allowed to cascade through the ECN to many other structures in the brain.

Tiriac and Blumberg’s findings open new avenues for understanding how the developing brain learns to distinguish the movements that we produce ourselves from those that occur due to forces in the outside world. Also, the challenge remains to identify the specific mechanisms by which twitches help develop and refine the brain circuits that enable mammals to move around as effectively as they do.

To find out more

Read the eLife research paper on which this eLife digest is based: “Gating of reafference in the external cuneate nucleus during self-generated movements in wake but not sleep” (August 3, 2016).
eLife is an open-access journal that publishes outstanding research in the life sciences and biomedicine.
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