Sleep to move: How infants develop motor control

Research Summary
Hayley Roper
Research Assistant

Infants constantly grow and change. Just in the first year of life, babies develop motor skills that allow them to make controlled movements such as sitting up, crawling, and for some, walking. While we do not know much about how these skills develop, researchers are gaining insight.

New findings published in Current Biology reveal, for the first time, activity in the brain during sleep that is involved in the development of motor control. Researchers studying infant rats found that the hippocampus, the brain region involved in solidifying memories and spatial navigation communicates with the red nucleus, a part of the brain-stem that is involved in motor control.  Researchers found that this communication occurs during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. Like rats, human infants spend a large portion of sleep in REM sleep. Also, basic brain structures in rats resemble that of humans, so researchers believe that this communication is likely to occur in human infants.

As the first to show which brain regions are involved in motor control development, these findings give scientists a way to study and solve problems that were not previously possible. For example, disorders associated with disruptions in REM sleep, such as autism and schizophrenia, are also commonly associated with motor-control problems. With this new insight on motor control development, researchers can begin teasing apart how sleep disruptions in infancy may interfere with motor-control development. And, how these disruptions contribute to the development or maintenance of certain disorders.