Whisker encoding of mechanical events during active tactile exploration. Article - 2012

Yves Boubenec, Daniel Shulz, Georges Debrégeas

Yves Boubenec, Daniel Shulz, Georges Debrégeas, « Whisker encoding of mechanical events during active tactile exploration.  », Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, 2012, p. 74. ISSN 1662-5153


Rats use their whiskers to extract a wealth of information about their immediate environment, such as the shape, position or texture of an object. The information is conveyed to mechanoreceptors located within the whisker follicle in the form of a sequence of whisker deflections induced by the whisker/object contact interaction. How the whiskers filter and shape the mechanical information and effectively participate in the coding of tactile features remains an open question to date. In the present article, a biomechanical model was developed that provides predictions of the whisker dynamics during active tactile exploration, amenable to quantitative experimental comparison. This model is based on a decomposition of the whisker profile into a slow, quasi-static sequence and rapid resonant small-scale vibrations. It was applied to the typical situation of a rat actively whisking across a solid object. Having derived the quasi-static sequence of whisker deformation, the resonant properties of the whisker were analyzed, taking into account the boundary conditions imposed by the whisker/surface contact. We then focused on two elementary mechanical events that are expected to trigger significant neural responses, namely (1) the whisker/object first contact and (2) the whisker detachment from the object. Both events were found to trigger a deflection wave propagating upward to the mystacial pad at constant velocity of ≈3-5 m/s. This yielded a characteristic mechanical signature at the whisker base, in the form of a large peak of negative curvature occurring ≈4 ms after the event has been triggered. The dependence in amplitude and lag of this mechanical signal with the main contextual parameters (such as radial or angular distance) was investigated. The model was validated experimentally by comparing its predictions to high-speed video recordings of shock-induced whisker deflections performed on anesthetized rats. The consequences of these results on possible tactile encoding schemes are briefly discussed.

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