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J Neurosci. 2008 Jan 16;28(3):776-86. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.4162-07.2008.

The representation of stimulus orientation in the early stages of somatosensory processing.

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Krieger Mind/Brain Institute, The Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland 21218, USA.


At an early stage of processing, a stimulus is represented as a set of contours. In the representation of form, a critical feature of these local contours is their orientation. In the present study, we investigate the representation of orientation at the somatosensory periphery and in primary somatosensory cortex. We record the responses of mechanoreceptive afferents and of neurons in areas 3b and 1 to oriented bars and edges using a variety of stimulus conditions. We find that orientation is not explicitly represented in the responses of single afferents, but a large proportion of orientation detectors (approximately 50%) can be found in areas 3b and 1. Many neurons in both areas exhibit orientation tuning that is preserved across modes of stimulus presentation (scanned vs indented) and is relatively insensitive to other stimulus parameters, such as amplitude and speed, and to the nature of the stimulus, bar or edge. Orientation-selective neurons tend to be more SA (slowly adapting)-like than RA (rapidly adapting)-like, and the strength of the orientation signal is strongest during the sustained portion of the response to a statically indented bar. The most orientation-selective neurons in SI are comparable in sensitivity with that measured in humans. Finally, responses of SI neurons to bars and edges can be modeled with a high degree of accuracy using Gaussian or Gabor filters. The similarity in the representations of orientation in the visual and somatosensory systems suggests that analogous neural mechanisms mediate early visual and tactile form processing.

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