In freely moving rats, whisking is associated with a slow modulation of neuronal excitability in the primary somatosensory cortex. Because it persists after the blockade of vibrissa input, it was suggested that the slow modulation might be mediated by motor-sensory corticocortical connections and perhaps result from the corollary discharges of corticofugal cells. In the present study, we identified motor cortical cells that project to the barrel field and reconstructed their axonal projections after juxtacellularly staining single cells with a biotinylated tracer. On the basis of the final destination of main axons, two groups of neurons contribute to motor-sensory projections: callosal cells (87.5%) and corticofugal cells (12.5%). Axon collaterals of callosal cells arborize in layers five to six of the granular and dysgranular zones and give off several branches that ascend between the barrels to ramify in the molecular layer. In contrast, the axon collaterals of corticofugal cells do not ramify in the infragranular layers but in layer 1. The origin of the majority of motor sensory projections from callosally projecting cells does not support the notion that the slow modulation results from the corollary discharges of corticofugal axons. It would rather originate from a separate population of cells, which could output the slow signal to the barrel field in parallel with the corticofugal commands to a brainstem pattern generator. As free whisking is characterized by bilateral concerted movements of the vibrissae, the transcallosal contribution of motor-sensory axons represents a substrate for synchronizing the slow modulation across both hemispheres.
Copyright 2003 Wiley-Liss, Inc.