Pathway-specific reorganization of projection neurons in somatosensory cortex during learning
In the mammalian brain, sensory cortices exhibit plasticity during task learning, but how this alters information transferred between connected cortical areas remains unknown. We found that divergent subpopulations of cortico-cortical neurons in mouse whisker primary somatosensory cortex (S1) undergo functional changes reflecting learned behavior. We chronically imaged activity of S1 neurons projecting to secondary somatosensory (S2) or primary motor (M1) cortex in mice learning a texture discrimination task. Mice adopted an active whisking strategy that enhanced texture-related whisker kinematics, correlating with task performance. M1-projecting neurons reliably encoded basic kinematics features, and an additional subset of touch-related neurons was recruited that persisted past training. The number of S2-projecting touch neurons remained constant, but improved their discrimination of trial types through reorganization while developing activity patterns capable of discriminating the animal's decision. We propose that learning-related changes in S1 enhance sensory representations in a pathway-specific manner, providing downstream areas with task-relevant information for behavior.