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Neural Computation via Neural Geometry: A Place Code for Inter-Whisker Timing in the Barrel Cortex?

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Original languageEnglish
Article numbere1002188
Number of pages14
JournalPLoS Computational Biology
Issue number10
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2011


The place theory proposed by Jeffress (1948) is still the dominant model of how the brain represents the movement of sensory stimuli between sensory receptors. According to the place theory, delays in signalling between neurons, dependent on the distances between them, compensate for time differences in the stimulation of sensory receptors. Hence the location of neurons, activated by the coincident arrival of multiple signals, reports the stimulus movement velocity. Despite its generality, most evidence for the place theory has been provided by studies of the auditory system of auditory specialists like the barn owl, but in the study of mammalian auditory systems the evidence is inconclusive. We ask to what extent the somatosensory systems of tactile specialists like rats and mice use distance dependent delays between neurons to compute the motion of tactile stimuli between the facial whiskers (or 'vibrissae'). We present a model in which synaptic inputs evoked by whisker deflections arrive at neurons in layer 2/3 (L2/3) somatosensory 'barrel' cortex at different times. The timing of synaptic inputs to each neuron depends on its location relative to sources of input in layer 4 (L4) that represent stimulation of each whisker. Constrained by the geometry and timing of projections from L4 to L2/3, the model can account for a range of experimentally measured responses to two-whisker stimuli. Consistent with that data, responses of model neurons located between the barrels to paired stimulation of two whiskers are greater than the sum of the responses to either whisker input alone. The model predicts that for neurons located closer to either barrel these supralinear responses are tuned for longer inter-whisker stimulation intervals, yielding a topographic map for the inter-whisker deflection interval across the surface of L2/3. This map constitutes a neural place code for the relative timing of sensory stimuli.

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