Reorganization of somatosensory area 3b representations in adult owl monkeys after digital syndactyly

J Neurophysiol. 1991 Sep;66(3):1048-58. doi: 10.1152/jn.1991.66.3.1048.


1. These experiments were designed to test the hypothesis that temporally correlated afferent input activity plays a lifelong role in the establishment and modification of receptive fields (RFs) and representational topographies in the primary somatosensory cortex of adult monkeys. They were based in part on the finding that adjacent digits of the hand are represented discontinuously in area 3b of the adult owl monkey. If cortical receptive fields and the details of cortical topographic representations are shaped by the weights of the temporal correlations among afferent inputs, then representational discontinuities between digits would be expected to arise because inputs from the skin surfaces of adjacent digits are largely independent in the critical time domain. 2. In the present experiments, the skin of adjacent digits 3 and 4 of the monkey hand was surgically connected to create an artificial syndactyly, or webbed-finger condition. Highly detailed microelectrode maps of the cortical representation of the syndactyl digits were obtained 3-7.5 mo later. This experimental manipulation greatly increased the amount of simultaneous or nearly simultaneous input from the normally separated, now fused, surfaces of adjacent fingers. 3. Cortical maps of the representations of finger surfaces were highly modified from the normal after a several-month-long period of digital fusion. Specifically, the normal discontinuity between the cortical representations of adjacent fingers was abolished. Within a wide cortical zone, RFs were defined that extended across the line of syndactyly onto the surgically joined skin of both fused digits. The representational topography of the fused digits was similar to any normal single digit and was characterized by a continuous progression of partially overlapping RFs. 4. Control observations revealed that these reorganizational changes cannot be accounted for by any changes in cutaneous innervation induced by the surgery. They must arise from representational changes in the central somatosensory system. 5. These findings reveal that cortical maps can be altered in detail in adult monkeys by modifying the distributed temporal structure of afferent inputs. They support the longstanding hypothesis that the temporal coincidence of inputs plays a role in the grouping of input subsets into specific cortical RFs and, consequently, in the shaping of selected effective cortical inputs and representational topographies throughout life.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Aotidae
  • Brain Mapping
  • Fingers / innervation*
  • Microelectrodes
  • Neurons, Afferent / physiology
  • Skin / innervation
  • Somatosensory Cortex / anatomy & histology
  • Somatosensory Cortex / physiology*