The superior colliculus is part of a broader neural network that can decode whisker movements in air and on objects, which is a strategy used by behaving rats to sense the environment. The intermediate layers of the superior colliculus receive whisker-related excitatory afferents from the trigeminal complex and barrel cortex, inhibitory afferents from extrinsic and intrinsic sources, and neuromodulatory afferents from cholinergic and monoaminergic nuclei. However, it is not well known how these inputs regulate whisker-related activity in the superior colliculus. We found that barrel cortex afferents drive the superior colliculus during the middle portion of the rising phase of the whisker movement protraction elicited by artificial (fictive) whisking in anesthetized rats. In addition, both spontaneous and whisker-related neural activities in the superior colliculus are under strong inhibitory and neuromodulator control. Cholinergic stimulation activates the superior colliculus by increasing spontaneous firing and, in some cells, whisker-evoked responses. Monoaminergic stimulation has the opposite effects. The actions of neuromodulator and inhibitory afferents may be the basis of the different firing rates and sensory responsiveness observed in the superior colliculus of behaving animals during distinct behavioral states.
Keywords: acetylcholine; neuromodulation; norepinephrine; superior colliculus; whisker.
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