How do we sense? Rat whiskers have the answer

February 29th, 2008 - 12:37 am ICT by admin  

Washington, Feb 28 (IANS) Insights derived from how rats sense objects could enable a better understanding of hearing and touch in all mammals, including humans. A high-speed video of rats using their whiskers to explore different surfaces has provided researchers with a window into the subtle mechanics of their tactile sensory system.

The information is significant because the rat’s tactile machinery is a widely used lab model for studying how energy from sound or touch is translated into neural activity.

Christopher Moore and colleagues published their findings in the latest issue of the journal Neuron.

Previous studies had analysed motions and neural signals generated by isolated rat whiskers, rather than the complex, subtle “micro-motions” of the array of whiskers, called vibrissae, in a behaving animal.

In their experiments, the researchers trained rats to use whiskers to discriminate rough and smooth surfaces in a darkened chamber. Their reward for performing correctly was a sip of chocolate milk.

Using high-speed videography, researchers recorded subtle vibrations of the whiskers as the animals probed the surfaces with their characteristic “whisking” motion.

The analysis also revealed how different whisker lengths exhibited different resonance characteristics, contributing to the animals’ acute ability to “see” their environment with their whiskers.

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