Rats explore tangible objects in a manner such that, at any given moment in time, multiple facial whiskers simultaneously contact the surface of the object. Although both thalamic and cortical neurons responsible for processing such tactile information have large, multiwhisker receptive fields, it remains unclear what kinds of computations can be carried out by these neuronal populations when behaviorally relevant multi-whisker stimuli are used. By simultaneously recording the activity of up to 78 cortical and thalamic neurons per animal, we observed that the magnitude of sensory responses and the spatial spread of ensemble activity increased in a nonlinear fashion according to the extent and spatial orientation of the multiwhisker stimuli. Supralinear responses were seen more frequently with vertically than with horizontally oriented stimuli. These data suggest that thalamocortical interactions in the rat somatosensory system can generate complex spatial transformations of multiwhisker stimuli that go beyond the classic inhibitory interactions previously observed.
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