Brecht Michael

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  • Article
    Structure, function, and cortical representation of the rat submandibular whisker trident
    (Society for Neuroscience, 2013-03-13) The, Lydia ; Wallace, Michael L. ; Chen, Christopher H. ; Chorev, Edith ; Brecht, Michael
    Although the neurobiology of rodent facial whiskers has been studied intensively, little is known about sensing in other vibrissae. Here we describe the under-investigated submandibular “whisker trident” on the rat's chin. In this three-whisker array, a unique unpaired midline whisker is laterally flanked by two slightly shorter whiskers. All three whiskers point to the ground and are curved backwards. Unlike other whiskers, the trident is not located on an exposed body part. Trident vibrissae are not whisked and do not touch anything over long stretches of time. However, trident whiskers engage in sustained ground contact during head-down running while the animal is exploring or foraging. In biomechanical experiments, trident whiskers follow caudal ground movement more smoothly than facial whiskers. Remarkably, deflection angles decrease with increasing ground velocity. We identified one putative trident barrel in the left somatosensory cortex and two barrels in the right somatosensory cortex. The elongated putative trident-midline barrel is the longest and largest whisker barrel, suggesting that the midline trident whisker is of great functional significance. Cortical postsynaptic air-puff responses in the trident representation show much less temporal precision than facial whisker responses. Trident whiskers do not provide as much high-resolution information about object contacts as facial whiskers. Instead, our observations suggest an idiothetic function: their biomechanics allow trident whiskers to derive continuous measurements about ego motion from ground contacts. The midline position offers unique advantages in sensing heading direction in a laterally symmetric manner. The changes in trident deflection angle with velocity suggest that trident whiskers might function as a tactile speedometer.
  • Article
    Relative enlargement of the medial preoptic nucleus in the Etruscan shrew, the smallest torpid mammal
    (Nature Research, 2022-11-03) Sun, Senmiao ; Brecht, Michael
    Endothermy is a key feature of mammalian biology and enables mammals to maintain stable body temperature and homeostatic functions in the face of a rapidly changing environment. However, when faced with harsh environmental conditions, certain mammalian species enter torpor, a state characterized by reduced metabolism, body temperature, and activity, to minimize energy loss. Etruscan shrews are the smallest mammals, with a surface-to-volume ratio that is very unfavorable for endothermic animals. As a result, Etruscan shrews have an extremely high metabolic rate and are known to enter torpor frequently, presumably as an energy-saving measure. Despite the recent identification of medial preoptic area (MPA) as a key brain region to regulate torpor in mouse, little is known about neural control of torpor in other endothermic animals, including the Etruscan shrew. Here, we confirmed that Etruscan shrews readily enter torpor even in the absence of strong physiological triggers. We then compared the medial preoptic nucleus (MPN) within the MPA of Etruscan shrew and rat, a mammal that does not enter torpor under physiological conditions. While rats have roughly 100 times the body weight and 33 times the brain weight of Etruscan shrews, we find that the male rat MPN exhibits only 6.7 times the volume of that of the male Etruscan shrew. Accordingly, the relative brain volume of the MPN was 6.5-fold larger in shrews, a highly significant difference. Moreover, MPN neuron counts were only roughly twofold lower in shrews than in rats, an astonishing observation considering the interspecies size difference and that neocortical neurons are ~ 20 × more numerous in rats than in shrews. We suggest that the extraordinary enlargement of the Etruscan shrew MPN is a specialization for orchestrating torpor in a mammal with an exceptional metabolism.
  • Article
    Multisensory and motor representations in rat oral somatosensory cortex
    (Nature Publishing Group, 2018-09-10) Clemens, Ann M. ; Fernandez Delgado, Yohami ; Mehlman, Max L. ; Mishra, Poonam ; Brecht, Michael
    In mammals, a complex array of oral sensors assess the taste, temperature and haptic properties of food. Although the representation of taste has been extensively studied in the gustatory cortex, it is unclear how the somatosensory cortex encodes information about the properties of oral stimuli. Moreover, it is poorly understood how different oral sensory modalities are integrated and how sensory responses are translated into oral motor actions. To investigate whether oral somatosensory cortex processes food-related sensations and movements, we performed in vivo whole-cell recordings and motor mapping experiments in rats. Neurons in oral somatosensory cortex showed robust post-synaptic and sparse action potential responses to air puffs. Membrane potential showed that cold water evoked larger responses than room temperature or hot water. Most neurons showed no clear tuning of responses to bitter, sweet and neutral gustatory stimuli. Finally, motor mapping experiments with histological verification revealed an initiation of movements related to food consumption behavior, such as jaw opening and tongue protrusions. We conclude that somatosensory cortex: (i) provides a representation of the temperature of oral stimuli, (ii) does not systematically encode taste information and (iii) influences orofacial movements related to food consummatory behavior.
  • Preprint
    Sexually monomorphic maps and dimorphic responses in rat genital cortex
    ( 2015-09) Lenschow, Constanze ; Copley, Sean ; Gardiner, Jayne M. ; Talbot, Zoe N. ; Vitenzon, Ariel ; Brecht, Michael
    Mammalian external genitals show sexual dimorphism [1,2] and can change size and shape upon sexual arousal. Genitals feature prominently in the oldest pieces of figural art [3] and phallic depictions of penises informed psychoanalytic thought about sexuality [4, 5]. Despite this longstanding interest, the neural representations of genitals are still poorly understood [6]. In somatosensory cortex specifically, many studies did not detect any cortical representation of genitals [7-9]. Studies in humans debate, if genitals are represented displaced below the foot of the cortical body map [10-12], or if they are represented somatotopically [13-15]. We wondered, what a high-resolution mapping of genital representations might tell us about the sexual differentiation of the mammalian brain. We identified genital responses in rat somatosensory cortex in a region previously assigned as arm/leg cortex. Genital responses were more common in males than in females. Despite such response dimorphism, we observed a stunning anatomical monomorphism of cortical penis and clitoris input maps revealed by cytochrome-oxidasestaining of cortical layer-4. Genital representations were somatotopic, bilaterally symmetric and their relative size increased markedly during puberty. Size, shape and erect posture give the cortical penis representation a phallic appearance pointing to a role in sexually aroused states. Cortical genital neurons showed unusual multi-body-part responses and sexually dimorphic receptive fields. Specifically, genital neurons were coactivated by distant body regions, which are touched during mounting in the respective sex. Genital maps indicate a deep homology of penis and clitoris representations in line with a fundamentally bi-sexual layout [16] of the vertebrate brain.