While the response properties of neurons in the somatosensory nerves and anterior parietal cortex have been extensively studied, little is known about the encoding of tactile and proprioceptive information in the cuneate nucleus (CN) or external cuneate nucleus (ECN), the first recipients of upper limb somatosensory afferent signals. The major challenge in characterizing neural coding in CN/ECN has been to record from these tiny, difficult-to-access brain stem structures. Most previous investigations of CN response properties have been carried out in decerebrate or anesthetized animals, thereby eliminating the well-documented top-down signals from cortex, which likely exert a strong influence on CN responses. Seeking to fill this gap in our understanding of somatosensory processing, we describe an approach to chronically implanting arrays of electrodes in the upper limb representation in the brain stem in primates. First, we describe the topography of CN/ECN in rhesus macaques, including its somatotopic organization and the layout of its submodalities (touch and proprioception). Second, we describe the design of electrode arrays and the implantation strategy to obtain stable recordings. Third, we show sample responses of CN/ECN neurons in brain stem obtained from awake, behaving monkeys. With this method, we are in a position to characterize, for the first time, somatosensory representations in CN and ECN of primates.NEW & NOTEWORTHY In primates, the neural basis of touch and of our sense of limb posture and movements has been studied in the peripheral nerves and in somatosensory cortex, but coding in the cuneate and external cuneate nuclei, the first processing stage for these signals in the central nervous system, remains an enigma. We have developed a method to record from these nuclei, thereby paving the way to studying how sensory information from the limb is encoded there.
Keywords: brain stem; electrode array; neural coding; proprioception; touch.
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