Response properties of whisker-associated trigeminothalamic neurons in rat nucleus principalis

J Neurophysiol. 2003 Jan;89(1):40-56. doi: 10.1152/jn.00272.2002.


Nucleus principalis (PrV) of the brain stem trigeminal complex mediates the processing and transfer of low-threshold mechanoreceptor input en route to the ventroposterior medial nucleus of the thalamus (VPM). In rats, this includes tactile information relayed from the large facial whiskers via primary afferent fibers originating in the trigeminal ganglion (NV). Here we describe the responses of antidromically identified VPM-projecting PrV neurons (n = 72) to controlled ramp-and-hold deflections of whiskers. For comparison, we also recorded the responses of 64 NV neurons under identical experimental and stimulus conditions. Both PrV and NV neurons responded transiently to stimulus onset (ON) and offset (OFF), and the majority of both populations also displayed sustained, or tonic, responses throughout the plateau phase of the stimulus (75% of NV cells and 93% of PrV cells). Average ON and OFF response magnitudes were similar between the two populations. In both NV and PrV, cells were highly sensitive to the direction of whisker deflection. Directional tuning was slightly but significantly greater in NV, suggesting that PrV neurons integrate inputs from NV cells differing in their preferred directions. Receptive fields of PrV neurons were typically dominated by a "principal" whisker (PW), whose evoked responses were on average threefold larger than those elicited by any given adjacent whisker (AW; n = 197). However, of the 65 PrV cells for which data from at least two AWs were obtained, most (89%) displayed statistically significant ON responses to deflections of one or more AWs. AW response latencies were 2.7 +/- 3.8 (SD) ms longer than those of their corresponding PWs, with an inner quartile latency difference of 1-4 ms (+/-25% of median). The range in latency differences suggests that some adjacent whisker responses arise within PrV itself, whereas others have a longer, multi-synaptic origin, possibly via the spinal trigeminal nucleus. Overall, our findings reveal that the stimulus features encoded by primary afferent neurons are reflected in the responses of VPM-projecting PrV neurons, and that significant convergence of information from multiple whiskers occurs at the first synaptic station in the whisker-to-barrel pathway.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological / physiology
  • Animals
  • Electrophysiology
  • Female
  • Neurons, Afferent / physiology*
  • Pons / cytology
  • Pons / physiology*
  • Rats
  • Rats, Sprague-Dawley
  • Somatosensory Cortex / cytology
  • Somatosensory Cortex / physiology
  • Trigeminal Ganglion / cytology
  • Trigeminal Ganglion / physiology
  • Trigeminal Nuclei / cytology
  • Trigeminal Nuclei / physiology*
  • Ventral Thalamic Nuclei / cytology
  • Ventral Thalamic Nuclei / physiology*
  • Vibrissae / innervation*
  • Vibrissae / physiology