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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. Here, we have investigated the possible coupling between whiskers at a preneuronal level, transmitted by the skin and muscles between follicles. First, we have 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 towards 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.
This article was published in the following journal.
Name: Journal of neurophysiology
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