Mechanical coupling through the skin affects whisker movements and tactile information encoding Article - Octobre 2019

Valérie Ego-Stengel, Aamir Abbasi, Margot Larroche, Henri Lassagne, Yves Boubenec, Daniel E. Shulz

Valérie Ego-Stengel, Aamir Abbasi, Margot Larroche, Henri Lassagne, Yves Boubenec, Daniel E. Shulz, « Mechanical coupling through the skin affects whisker movements and tactile information encoding  », Journal of Neurophysiology, octobre 2019, pp. 1606-1622. ISSN 0022-3077

Abstract

Rats use their whiskers to extract sensory information from their environment. While exploring, they analyze peripheral stimuli distributed over several whiskers. Previous studies have reported cross-whisker integration of information at several levels of the neuronal pathways from whisker follicles to the somatosensory cortex. In the present study, we investigated the possible coupling between whiskers at a preneuronal level, transmitted by the skin and muscles between follicles. First, we quantified the movement induced on one whisker by deflecting another whisker. Our results show significant mechanical coupling, predominantly when a given whisker’s caudal neighbor in the same row is deflected. The magnitude of the effect was correlated with the diameter of the deflected whisker. In addition to changes in whisker angle, we observed curvature changes when the whisker shaft was constrained distally from the base. Second, we found that trigeminal ganglion neurons innervating a given whisker follicle fire action potentials in response to high-magnitude deflections of an adjacent whisker. This functional coupling also shows a bias toward the caudal neighbor located in the same row. Finally, we designed a two-whisker biomechanical model to investigate transmission of forces across follicles. Analysis of the whisker-follicle contact forces suggests that activation of mechanoreceptors in the ring sinus region could account for our electrophysiological results. The model can fully explain the observed caudal bias by the gradient in whisker diameter, with possible contribution of the intrinsic muscles connecting follicles. Overall, our study demonstrates the functional relevance of mechanical coupling on early information processing in the whisker system.NEW & NOTEWORTHY Rodents explore their environment actively by touching objects with their whiskers. A major challenge is to understand how sensory inputs from different whiskers are merged together to form a coherent tactile percept. We demonstrate that external sensory events on one whisker can influence the position of another whisker and, importantly, that they can trigger the activity of mechanoreceptors at its base. This cross-whisker interaction occurs pre-neuronally, through mechanical transmission of forces in the skin.

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