Whisking as a "voluntary" response: operant control of whisking parameters and effects of whisker denervation

Somatosens Mot Res. 2003;20(3-4):179-89. doi: 10.1080/08990220310001623031.


The rat's ability to vary its whisking "strategies" to meet the functional demands of a discriminative task suggests that whisking may be characterized as a "voluntary" behavior--an operant--and like other operants, should be modifiable by appropriate manipulations of response-reinforcer contingencies. To test this hypothesis we have used high-resolution, optoelectronic "real-time" recording procedures to monitor the movements of individual whiskers and reinforce specific movement parameters (amplitude, frequency). In one operant paradigm (N = 9) whisks with protractions above a specified amplitude were reinforced (Variable Interval 30 s) in the presence of a tone, but extinguished (EXT) in its absence. In a second paradigm (N = 3), rats were reinforced on two different VI schedules (VI-20s/VI-120s) signaled, respectively, by the presence or absence of the tone. Selective reinforcement of whisking movements maintained the behavior over many weeks of testing and brought it under stimulus and schedule control. Subjects in the first paradigm learned to increase responding in the presence of the tone and inhibit responding in its absence. In the second paradigm, subjects whisked at significantly different rates in the two stimulus conditions. Bilateral deafferentation of the whisker pad did not impair conditioned whisking or disrupt discrimination behavior. Our results confirm the hypothesis that rodent whisking has many of the properties of an operant response. The ability to bring whisking movement parameters under operant control should facilitate electrophysiological and lesion/behavioral studies of this widely used "model" sensorimotor system.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biomechanical Phenomena
  • Conditioning, Operant / physiology
  • Denervation
  • Female
  • Male
  • Motor Neurons / physiology
  • Movement / physiology*
  • Neuronal Plasticity / physiology
  • Neurons, Afferent / physiology
  • Rats
  • Rats, Long-Evans
  • Vibrissae / innervation*
  • Vibrissae / physiology*
  • Volition / physiology*