Two Psychophysical Channels of Whisker Deflection in Rats Align with Two Neuronal Classes of Primary Afferents
The rat whisker system has evolved into in an excellent model system for sensory processing from the periphery to cortical stages. However, to elucidate how sensory processing finally relates to percepts, methods to assess psychophysical performance pertaining to precise stimulus kinematics are needed. Here, we present a head-fixed, behaving rat preparation that allowed us to measure detectability of a single whisker deflection as a function of amplitude and peak velocity. We found that velocity thresholds for detection of small amplitude stimuli (>3°) were considerably higher than for detection of large-amplitude stimuli (<3°). This finding suggests the existence of two psychophysical channels mediating detection of whisker deflection: one channel exhibiting high amplitude and low velocity thresholds (W1), and the other channel exhibiting high velocity and low amplitude thresholds (W2). The correspondence of W1 to slowly adapting (SA) and W2 to rapidly adapting (RA) neuronal classes in the trigeminal ganglion was revealed in acute neurophysiological experiments. Neurometric plots of SA and RA cells were closely aligned to psychophysical performance in the corresponding W1 and W2 parameter ranges. Interestingly, neurometric data of SA cells fit the behavior best if it was based on a short time window integrating action potentials during the initial phasic response, in contrast to integrating across the tonic portion of the response. This suggests that detection performance in both channels is based on the assessment of very few spikes in their corresponding groups of primary afferents.