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PLoS Biol. 2007 Feb;5(2):e15.

Active spatial perception in the vibrissa scanning sensorimotor system.

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Neurosciences Graduate Program, University of California at San Diego, La Jolla, California, United States of America.


Haptic perception is an active process that provides an awareness of objects that are encountered as an organism scans its environment. In contrast to the sensation of touch produced by contact with an object, the perception of object location arises from the interpretation of tactile signals in the context of the changing configuration of the body. A discrete sensory representation and a low number of degrees of freedom in the motor plant make the ethologically prominent rat vibrissa system an ideal model for the study of the neuronal computations that underlie this perception. We found that rats with only a single vibrissa can combine touch and movement to distinguish the location of objects that vary in angle along the sweep of vibrissa motion. The patterns of this motion and of the corresponding behavioral responses show that rats can scan potential locations and decide which location contains a stimulus within 150 ms. This interval is consistent with just one to two whisk cycles and provides constraints on the underlying perceptual computation. Our data argue against strategies that do not require the integration of sensory and motor modalities. The ability to judge angular position with a single vibrissa thus connects previously described, motion-sensitive neurophysiological signals to perception in the behaving animal.

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