In a nutshell: This set-up will allow researchers to investigate how rats decide what sensory information is most deserving of attention.

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The big picture:

A way to investigate how rat brains subconsciously prioritise sensory information — a skill critical to survival in any animal, including humans — has been developed by CIBF chief investigator Ehsan Arabzadeh and his team at the Eccles Institute of Neuroscience at the Australian National University.

The Arabzadeh team trained rats to respond in a set way to two different stimuli—a vibration through the whiskers or a flash of light. The trained rats were then exposed to one stimulus much more than the other in testing sessions — think of them as whisker sessions or light-flash sessions.

Rats responded faster and more accurately to the most common stimulus. For example, in a “whisker session”, they were quicker to respond to vibrations, and better able to detect weak vibrations than light flashes. And neuronal activity was correspondingly enhanced in the sensory cortex region that processes whisker vibrations.

From a survival perspective this makes sense, says Conrad Lee, a PhD student in Arabzadeh’s team, and the lead author of the paper. In a dark space, a rat gets more information about the environment from its exquisitely sensitive facial whiskers than from its eyes. In daylight, in an open field, what a rat sees will likely be more useful than what it feels through its whiskers.

Next steps:
Neuronal circuits between the whiskers, eyes and brain are well known. Researchers will use this knowledge, and the new paradigm, to explore how the brain chooses which sensory information is the most appropriate for its circumstances.

Lee, C. C., Diamond, M. E., and Arabzadeh, E. (2016). Sensory Prioritization in Rats: Behavioral Performance and Neuronal Correlates. The Journal of Neuroscience, 36(11), 3243-3253.

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