Vertical thalamocortical afferents give rise to the elementary functional units of sensory cortex, cortical columns. Principles that underlie communication between columns remain however unknown. Here we unravel these by reconstructing in vivo-labeled neurons from all excitatory cell types in the vibrissal part of rat primary somatosensory cortex (vS1). Integrating the morphologies into an exact 3D model of vS1 revealed that the majority of intracortical (IC) axons project far beyond the borders of the principal column. We defined the corresponding innervation volume as the IC-unit. Deconstructing this structural cortical unit into its cell type-specific components, we found asymmetric projections that innervate columns of either the same whisker row or arc, and which subdivide vS1 into 2 orthogonal [supra-]granular and infragranular strata. We show that such organization could be most effective for encoding multi whisker inputs. Communication between columns is thus organized by multiple highly specific horizontal projection patterns, rendering IC-units as the primary structural entities for processing complex sensory stimuli.
Keywords: barrel cortex; excitatory; intracortical unit; multiwhisker; transcolumnar.
© The Author 2015. Published by Oxford University Press.