Neonatal whisker removal reduces the discrimination of tactile stimuli by thalamic ensembles in adult rats.
Simultaneous recordings of up to 48 single neurons per animal were used to characterize the long-term functional effects of sensory plastic modifications in the ventral posterior medial nucleus (VPM) of the thalamus following unilateral removal of facial whiskers in newborn rats. One year after this neonatal whisker deprivation, neurons in the contralateral VPM responded to cutaneous stimulation of the face at much longer minimal latencies (15.2 +/- 8.2 ms, mean +/- SD) than did normal cells (8.8 +/- 5.3 ms) in the same subregion of the VPM. In 69% of these neurons, the initial sensory responses to stimulus offset were followed for up to 700 ms by reverberant trains of bursting discharge, alternating in 100-ms cycles with inhibition. Receptive fields in the deafferented VPM were also atypical in that they extended over the entire face, shoulder, forepaw, hindpaw, and even ipsilateral whiskers. Discriminant analysis (DA) was then used to statistically evaluate how this abnormal receptive field organization might affect the ability of thalamocortical neuronal populations to "discriminate" somatosensory stimulus location. To standardize this analysis, three stimulus targets ("groups") were chosen in all animals such that they triangulated the central region of the "receptive field" of the recorded multineuronal ensemble. In the normal animals these stimulus targets were whiskers or perioral hairs; in the deprived animals the targets typically included hairy skin of the body as well as face. The measured variables consisted of each neuron's spiking response to each stimulus differentiated into three poststimulus response epochs (0-15, 15-30, and 30-45 ms). DA quantified the statistical contribution of each of these variables to its overall discrimination between the three stimulus sites. In the normal animals, the stimulus locations were correctly classified in 88.2 +/- 3.7% of trials on the basis of the spatiotemporal patterns of ensemble activity derived from up to 18 single neurons. In the deprived animals, the stimulus locations were much less consistently discriminated (reduced to 73.5 +/- 12.6%; difference from controls significant at P < 0.01) despite the fact that much more widely spaced stimulus targets were used and even when up to 20 neurons were included in the ensemble. Overall, these results suggest that neonatal damage to peripheral sense organs may produce marked changes in the physiology of individual neurons in the somatosensory thalamus. Moreover, the present demonstration that these changes can profoundly alter sensory discrimination at the level of neural populations in the thalamus provides important evidence that the well-known perceptual effects of chronic peripheral deprivation may be partially attributable to plastic reorganization at subcortical levels.
Nicolelis, MA; Lin, RC; Chapin, JK
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