The Matrix: a new tool for probing the whisker-to-barrel system with natural stimuli.
Most sensory systems are active, in the sense that the animal performs specific motor actions in order to collect information of interest-signals are not merely passively received. We, therefore, expect cortical development to depend not only correct sensory experience, but also on correct motor experience. In this study, we used the rat whisker system as a model to compare the importance of these factors. In one group of animals, we trimmed all whiskers starting from post-natal day 8 (P8). In a second group, we left the whiskers intact, but prevented "whisking" by sectioning the facial (VIIth cranial) nerve on P8. The first group had severely disrupted sensory experience but normal motor patterns ("whisker-cut" rats); the second group had normal sensory pathways within which temporal activity patterns were disrupted by motor impairment ("nerve-cut" rats). When they reached 3 months of age, we recorded multi-unit responses from the infragranular layers of primary somatosensory cortex in response to deflection of either single whiskers or pairs of whiskers in order to compare these two groups to a third group of rats that had normal sensory and motor experience. Cortical topographic organization was unaltered in whisker- and nerve-cut rats. Whisker-cut rats showed a smaller than normal difference between the response magnitudes for the principal and surrounding whiskers, as well as stronger than normal interactions between co-active whisker inputs. Responses in nerve-cut rats were nearly indistinguishable from those in normal animals. Thus, unexpectedly, neither pure sensory nor sensorimotor deprivation caused gross functional disruption of SI according to our measures. It appears that abnormal sensory experience leads to alterations in the fine-tuning of cortical properties, but cortex is unexpectedly resistant to the effects of abnormal sensory and sensorimotor experience.