Sensation, movement and learning in the absence of barrel cortex

Nature. 2018 Sep;561(7724):542-546. doi: 10.1038/s41586-018-0527-y. Epub 2018 Sep 17.


For many of our senses, the role of the cerebral cortex in detecting stimuli is controversial1-17. Here we examine the effects of both acute and chronic inactivation of the primary somatosensory cortex in mice trained to move their large facial whiskers to detect an object by touch and respond with a lever to obtain a water reward. Using transgenic mice, we expressed inhibitory opsins in excitatory cortical neurons. Transient optogenetic inactivation of the primary somatosensory cortex, as well as permanent lesions, initially produced both movement and sensory deficits that impaired detection behaviour, demonstrating the link between sensory and motor systems during active sensing. Unexpectedly, lesioned mice had recovered full behavioural capabilities by the subsequent session. This rapid recovery was experience-dependent, and early re-exposure to the task after lesioning facilitated recovery. Furthermore, ablation of the primary somatosensory cortex before learning did not affect task acquisition. This combined optogenetic and lesion approach suggests that manipulations of the sensory cortex may be only temporarily disruptive to other brain structures that are themselves capable of coordinating multiple, arbitrary movements with sensation. Thus, the somatosensory cortex may be dispensable for active detection of objects in the environment.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biomechanical Phenomena
  • Female
  • Learning / physiology*
  • Male
  • Mice
  • Mice, Transgenic
  • Movement / physiology*
  • Neurons / metabolism
  • Optogenetics
  • Reward
  • Sensation / physiology*
  • Somatosensory Cortex / cytology
  • Somatosensory Cortex / physiology
  • Somatosensory Cortex / surgery
  • Touch / physiology
  • Vibrissae / physiology