Thursday, March 6, 2008
Rats' Twitchy Whiskers In Action
Rats use their whiskers in a way that is closely correlation to the human sense of touch: Just as humans move their fingertips across a surface to perceive shapes and textures, rats twitch their whiskers to achieve the same goal. Now, in a finding that could help further understanding of perception across species, MIT neuroresearchers have used high-speed video to reveal rat whiskers in action and show the tiny movements that underlie the rat's perception of its tactile environment.
Rats rely on whiskers to find their way in the dark, and they devote large areas of their brains to decoding the incoming signals, explains Christopher Moore, a member of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT and senior author of a study in the February 28th issue of Neuron. Neuroresearchers interested in perception have studied the whisker system intensively, but the information conveyed to the brain by whisker motions has remained a mystery--until now.
"Now that we can see what the rat's whiskers are telling the brain, we can start to understand better how this amazing perceptual system works," says Moore, who is also an assistant professor in MIT's Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences. "This understanding is relevant not only to the human sense of touch, but to all forms of perception, because every sensory organ is an interface between the mind and the external world"