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date: 22 October 2020

Abstract and Keywords

Whiskers (vibrissae) are prominent on the snout of many mammals, both terrestrial and aquatic. The defining feature of whiskers is that they are rooted in large follicles with dense sensory innervation, surrounded by doughnut-shaped blood sinuses. Some species, including rats and mice, have elaborate muscular control of their whiskers and explore their environment by making rhythmic back-and-forth “whisking” movements. Whisking movements are purposefully modulated according to specific behavioral goals (“active sensing”). The basic whisking rhythm is controlled by a premotor complex in the intermediate reticular formation.

Primary whisker neurons (PWNs), with cell bodies in the trigeminal ganglion, innervate several classes of mechanoreceptive nerve endings in the whisker follicle. Mechanotransduction involving Piezo2 ion channels establishes the fundamental physical signals that the whiskers communicate to the brain. PWN spikes are triggered by mechanical forces associated with both the whisking motion itself and whisker-object contact. Whisking is associated with inertial and muscle contraction forces that drive PWN activity. Whisker-object contact causes whiskers to bend, and PWN activity is driven primarily by the associated rotatory force (“bending moment”).

Sensory signals from the PWNs are routed to many parts of the hindbrain, midbrain, and forebrain. Parallel ascending pathways transmit information about whisker forces to sensorimotor cortex. At each brainstem, thalamic, and cortical level of these pathways, there are one or more maps of the whisker array, consisting of cell clusters (“barrels” in the primary somatosensory cortex) whose spatial arrangement precisely mirrors that of the whiskers on the snout. However, the overall architecture of the whisker-responsive regions of the brain system is best characterized by multilevel sensory-motor feedback loops. Its intriguing biology, in combination with advantageous properties as a model sensory system, has made the whisker system the platform for seminal insights into brain function.

Keywords: whisker system, somatosensory system, neural coding, trigeminal ganglion, thalamus, brainstem, barrel cortex, whisker mechanics, behavior, mechanosensation, vibrissae

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