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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2012 Jan 17;109(3):971-6. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1116726109. Epub 2012 Jan 4.

Behavioral study of whisker-mediated vibration sensation in rats.

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School of Psychology, University of New South Wales, Sydney 2052, NSW, Australia.


Rats use their vibrissal sensory system to collect information about the nearby environment. They can accurately and rapidly identify object location, shape, and surface texture. Which features of whisker motion does the sensory system extract to construct sensations? We addressed this question by training rats to make discriminations between sinusoidal vibrations simultaneously presented to the left and right whiskers. One set of rats learned to reliably identify which of two vibrations had higher frequency (f(1) vs. f(2)) when amplitudes were equal. Another set of rats learned to reliably identify which of two vibrations had higher amplitude (A(1) vs. A(2)) when frequencies were equal. Although these results indicate that both elemental features contribute to the rats' sensation, a further test found that the capacity to discriminate A and f was reduced to chance when the difference in one feature was counterbalanced by the difference in the other feature: Rats could not discriminate amplitude or frequency whenever A(1)f(1) = A(2)f(2). Thus, vibrations were sensed as the product Af rather than as separable elemental features, A and f. The product Af is proportional to a physical entity, the mean speed. Analysis of performance revealed that rats extracted more information about differences in Af than predicted by the sum of the information in elemental differences. These behavioral experiments support the predictions of earlier physiological studies by demonstrating that rats are "blind" to the elemental features present in a sinusoidal whisker vibration; instead, they perceive a composite feature, the speed of whisker motion.

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