Neuronal encoding of texture in the whisker sensory pathway

PLoS Biol. 2005 Jan;3(1):e17. doi: 10.1371/journal.pbio.0030017. Epub 2005 Jan 11.


A major challenge of sensory systems neuroscience is to quantify brain activity underlying perceptual experiences and to explain this activity as the outcome of elemental neuronal response properties. Rats make extremely fine discriminations of texture by "whisking" their vibrissae across an object's surface, yet the neuronal coding underlying texture sensations remains unknown. Measuring whisker vibrations during active whisking across surfaces, we found that each texture results in a unique "kinetic signature" defined by the temporal profile of whisker velocity. We presented these texture-induced vibrations as stimuli while recording responses of first-order sensory neurons and neurons in the whisker area of cerebral cortex. Each texture is encoded by a distinctive, temporally precise firing pattern. To look for the neuronal coding properties that give rise to texture-specific firing patterns, we delivered horizontal and vertical whisker movements that varied randomly in time ("white noise") and found that the response probabilities of first-order neurons and cortical neurons vary systematically according to whisker speed and direction. We applied the velocity-tuned spike probabilities derived from white noise to the sequence of velocity features in the texture to construct a simulated texture response. The close match between the simulated and real responses indicates that texture coding originates in the selectivity of neurons to elemental kinetic events.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Humans
  • Kinetics
  • Male
  • Motor Activity
  • Neural Pathways / physiology*
  • Neurons / physiology*
  • Neurons, Afferent / physiology
  • Rats
  • Rats, Wistar
  • Somatosensory Cortex / physiology
  • Vibrissae / physiology*