Neocortex, the neuronal structure at the base of the remarkable cognitive skills of mammals, is a layered sheet of neuronal tissue composed of juxtaposed and interconnected columns. A cortical column is considered the basic module of cortical processing present in all cortical areas. It is believed to contain a characteristic microcircuit composed of a few thousand neurons. The high degree of cortical segmentation into vertical columns and horizontal layers is a boon for scientific investigation because it eases the systematic dissection and functional analysis of intrinsic as well as extrinsic connections of the column. In this review we will argue that in order to understand neocortical function one needs to combine a microscopic view, elucidating the workings of the local columnar microcircuits, with a macroscopic view, which keeps track of the linkage of distant cortical modules in different behavioral contexts. We will exemplify this strategy using the model system of vibrissal touch in mice and rats. On the macroscopic level vibrissal touch is an important sense for the subterranean rodents and has been honed by evolution to serve an array of distinct behaviors. Importantly, the vibrissae are moved actively to touch - requiring intricate sensorimotor interactions. Vibrissal touch, therefore, offers ample opportunities to relate different behavioral contexts to specific interactions of distant columns. On the microscopic level, the cortical modules in primary somatosensory cortex process touch inputs at highest magnification and discreteness - each whisker is represented by its own so-called barrel column. The cellular composition, intrinsic connectivity and functional aspects of the barrel column have been studied in great detail. Building on the versatility of genetic tools available in rodents, new, highly selective and flexible cellular and molecular tools to monitor and manipulate neuronal activity have been devised. Researchers have started to combine these with advanced and highly precise behavioral methods, on par with the precision known from monkey preparations. Therefore, the vibrissal touch model system is exquisitely positioned to combine the microscopic with the macroscopic view and promises to be instrumental in our understanding of neocortical function.
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