The cortical output layer 5 contains two excitatory cell types, slender- and thick-tufted neurons. In rat vibrissal cortex, slender-tufted neurons carry motion and phase information during active whisking, but remain inactive after passive whisker touch. In contrast, thick-tufted neurons reliably increase spiking preferably after passive touch. By reconstructing the 3D patterns of intracortical axon projections from individual slender- and thick-tufted neurons, filled in vivo with biocytin, we were able to identify cell type-specific intracortical circuits that may encode whisker motion and touch. Individual slender-tufted neurons showed elaborate and dense innervation of supragranular layers of large portions of the vibrissal area (total length, 86.8 ± 5.5 mm). During active whisking, these long-range projections may modulate and phase-lock the membrane potential of dendrites in layers 2 and 3 to the whisking cycle. Thick-tufted neurons with soma locations intermingling with those of slender-tufted ones display less dense intracortical axon projections (total length, 31.6 ± 14.3 mm) that are primarily confined to infragranular layers. Based on anatomical reconstructions and previous measurements of spiking, we put forward the hypothesis that thick-tufted neurons in rat vibrissal cortex receive input of whisker motion from slender-tufted neurons onto their apical tuft dendrites and input of whisker touch from thalamic neurons onto their basal dendrites. During tactile-driven behavior, such as object location, near-coincident input from these two pathways may result in increased spiking activity of thick-tufted neurons and thus enhanced signaling to their subcortical targets.
Oberlaender, M., Boudewijns, Z. S. R. M., Kleele, T., Mansvelder, H. D., Sakmann, B., & de Kock, C. P. J. (2011). Three-dimensional axon morphologies of individual layer 5 neurons indicate cell type-specific intracortical pathways for whisker motion and touch. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108(10), 4188-4193. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1100647108