Object localization with whiskers

Biol Cybern. 2008 Jun;98(6):449-58. doi: 10.1007/s00422-008-0214-4. Epub 2008 May 20.


Rats use their large facial hairs (whiskers) to detect, localize and identify objects in their proximal three-dimensional (3D) space. Here, we focus on recent evidence of how object location is encoded in the neural sensory pathways of the rat whisker system. Behavioral and neuronal observations have recently converged to the point where object location in 3D appears to be encoded by an efficient orthogonal scheme supported by primary sensory-afferents: each primary-afferent can signal object location by a spatial (labeled-line) code for the vertical axis (along whisker arcs), a temporal code for the horizontal axis (along whisker rows), and an intensity code for the radial axis (from the face out). Neuronal evidence shows that (i) the identities of activated sensory neurons convey information about the vertical coordinate of an object, (ii) the timing of their firing, in relation to other reference signals, conveys information about the horizontal object coordinate, and (iii) the intensity of firing conveys information about the radial object coordinate. Such a triple-coding scheme allows for efficient multiplexing of 3D object location information in the activity of single neurons. Also, this scheme provides redundancy since the same information may be represented in the activity of many neurons. These features of orthogonal coding increase accuracy and reliability. We propose that the multiplexed information is conveyed in parallel to different readout circuits, each decoding a specific spatial variable. Such decoding reduces ambiguity, and simplifies the required decoding algorithms, since different readout circuits can be optimized for a particular variable.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Models, Neurological
  • Nerve Net / anatomy & histology
  • Nerve Net / physiology
  • Neural Pathways
  • Perception / physiology*
  • Physical Stimulation
  • Rats
  • Touch / physiology*
  • Vibrissae / innervation*
  • Vibrissae / physiology*