Discriminative whisking in the head-fixed rat: optoelectronic monitoring during tactile detection and discrimination tasks

Somatosens Mot Res. 2001;18(3):211-22. doi: 10.1080/01421590120072204.


We compared whisking movement patterns during acquisition of tactile detection and object discrimination under conditions in which (a) head movements are excluded and (b) exposure to tactile discriminanda is confined to the large, moveable vibrissae (macrovibrissae). We used optoelectronic instrumentation to track the movements of an individual whisker with high spatio-temporal resolution and a testing paradigm, which allowed us to dissociate performance on an "indicator" response (lever pressing) from the rat's "observing" responses (discriminative whisking). We analyzed the relation between discrimination performance and whisking movement patterns in order to clarify the process by which the indicator response comes under the stimulus control of information acquired by the rat's whisking behavior. Whisking patterns over the course of task acquisition differed with task demands. Acquisition of the Detection task was correlated with modulation of only one whisking movement parameter-total number of whisks emitted, and more whisking was seen on trials in which the discriminandum was absent. Discrimination between a sphere and cube differing in size and texture was correlated with a reduction in whisk duration and protraction amplitude and with a shift towards higher whisking frequencies. Our findings confirm previous reports that acquisition of tactile discriminations involves modulation by the animal of both the amount and the type of whisking. In contrast with a previous report (Brecht et al., 1997), they indicate that rats can solve tactile object detection and discrimination tasks (a) using only the large, motile mystacial vibrissae (macrovibrissae) and (b) without engaging in head movements. We conclude that the functional contribution of the macrovibrissae will vary with the nature of the task and the conditions of testing.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biomechanical Phenomena
  • Discrimination Learning / physiology*
  • Exploratory Behavior / physiology
  • Female
  • Male
  • Rats
  • Rats, Long-Evans
  • Touch / physiology*
  • Vibrissae / physiology*