Vibrissa Self-Motion and Touch Are Reliably Encoded along the Same Somatosensory Pathway from Brainstem through Thalamus

PLoS Biol. 2015 Sep 22;13(9):e1002253. doi: 10.1371/journal.pbio.1002253. eCollection 2015.


Active sensing involves the fusion of internally generated motor events with external sensation. For rodents, active somatosensation includes scanning the immediate environment with the mystacial vibrissae. In doing so, the vibrissae may touch an object at any angle in the whisk cycle. The representation of touch and vibrissa self-motion may in principle be encoded along separate pathways, or share a single pathway, from the periphery to cortex. Past studies established that the spike rates in neurons along the lemniscal pathway from receptors to cortex, which includes the principal trigeminal and ventral-posterior-medial thalamic nuclei, are substantially modulated by touch. In contrast, spike rates along the paralemniscal pathway, which includes the rostral spinal trigeminal interpolaris, posteromedial thalamic, and ventral zona incerta nuclei, are only weakly modulated by touch. Here we find that neurons along the lemniscal pathway robustly encode rhythmic whisking on a cycle-by-cycle basis, while encoding along the paralemniscal pathway is relatively poor. Thus, the representations of both touch and self-motion share one pathway. In fact, some individual neurons carry both signals, so that upstream neurons with a supralinear gain function could, in principle, demodulate these signals to recover the known decoding of touch as a function of vibrissa position in the whisk cycle.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Female
  • Mechanoreceptors / physiology
  • Proprioception
  • Rats, Long-Evans
  • Thalamus / physiology*
  • Touch / physiology*
  • Trigeminal Nuclei / physiology*
  • Vibrissae / physiology*
  • Zona Incerta / physiology*