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Open Access Research

Role of the trigeminal mesencephalic nucleus in rat whisker pad proprioception

Ombretta Mameli1*, Stefania Stanzani2, Gabriele Mulliri1, Rosalia Pellitteri3, Marcello A Caria1, Antonella Russo2 and Pierluigi De Riu1

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Neuroscience: Human Physiology Division, University of Sassari, viale San Pietro 43/B, 07100 Sassari, Italy

2 Department of Physiological Sciences, University of Catania, 95125 Catania, Italy

3 Institute of Neurological Sciences, National Research Council, Section of Catania, 95125, Catania, Italy

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Behavioral and Brain Functions 2010, 6:69  doi:10.1186/1744-9081-6-69

Published: 15 November 2010

Abstract

Background

Trigeminal proprioception related to rodent macrovibrissae movements is believed to involve skin receptors on the whisker pad because pad muscles operate without muscle spindles. This study was aimed to investigate in rats whether the trigeminal mesencephalic nucleus (TMnu), which provides proprioceptive feedback for chewing muscles, may be also involved in whisker pad proprioception.

Methods

Two retrograde tracers, Dil and True Blue Chloride, were injected into the mystacial pad and the masseter muscle on the same side of deeply anesthetized rats to label the respective projecting sensory neurons. This double-labeling technique was used to assess the co-innervation of both structures by the trigeminal mesencephalic nucleus (TMnu).

In a separate group of anesthetized animals, the spontaneous electrical activities of TMnu neurons were analyzed by extracellular recordings during spontaneous movements of the macrovibrissae. Mesencephalic neurons (TMne) were previously identified by their responses to masseter muscle stretching. Changes in TMne spontaneous electrical activities, analyzed under baseline conditions and during whisking movements, were statistically evaluated using Student's t-test for paired observations.

Results

Neuroanatomical experiments revealed different subpopulations of trigeminal mesencephalic neurons: i) those innervating the neuromuscular spindles of the masseter muscle, ii) those innervating the mystacial pad, and iii) those innervating both structures. Extracellular recordings made during spontaneous movements of the macrovibrisae showed that whisking neurons similar to those observed in the trigeminal ganglion were located in the TMnu. These neurons had different patterns of activation, which were dependent on the type of spontaneous macrovibrissae movement. In particular, their spiking activity tonically increased during fan-like movements of the vibrissae and showed phasic bursting during rhythmic whisking. Furthermore, the same neurons may also respond to masseter muscle stretch.

Conclusions

results strongly support the hypothesis that the TMnu also contains first-order neurons specialized for relaying spatial information related to whisker movement and location to trigeminal-cortical pathways. In fact, the TMnu projects to second-order trigeminal neurons, thus allowing the rat brain to deduce higher-order information regarding executed movements of the vibrissae by combining touch information carried by trigeminal ganglion neurons with proprioceptive information carried by mesencephalic neurons.