In rats, navigating through an environment requires continuous information about objects near the head. Sensory information such as object location and surface texture are encoded by spike firing patterns of single neurons within rat barrel cortex. Although there are many studies using single-unit electrophysiology, much less is known regarding the spatiotemporal pattern of activity of populations of neurons in barrel cortex in response to whisker stimulation. To examine cortical response at the population level, we used voltage-sensitive dye (VSD) imaging to examine ensemble spatiotemporal dynamics of barrel cortex in response to stimulation of single or two adjacent whiskers in urethane-anesthetized rats. Single whisker stimulation produced a poststimulus fluorescence response peak within 12-16 ms in the barrel corresponding to the stimulated whisker (principal whisker). This fluorescence subsequently propagated throughout the barrel field, spreading anisotropically preferentially along a barrel row. After paired whisker stimulation, the VSD signal showed sublinear summation (less than the sum of 2 single whisker stimulations), consistent with previous electrophysiological and imaging studies. Surprisingly, we observed a spatial shift in the center of activation occurring over a 10- to 20-ms period with shift magnitudes of 1-2 barrels. This shift occurred predominantly in the posteromedial direction within the barrel field. Our data thus reveal previously unreported spatiotemporal patterns of barrel cortex activation. We suggest that this nontopographical shift is consistent with known functional and anatomic asymmetries in barrel cortex and that it may provide an important insight for understanding barrel field activation during whisking behavior.
Keywords: VSD; barrel cortex; optical imaging; somatosensory; whisker function.