Virtual rats' whiskers

19 April 2011

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Category: Animal welfare & alternatives

lab–rat.jpgA new computer model of rats' whiskers is helping scientists understand how rats process the sense of touch.

While humans get most tactile sensory information from our fingers, many mammals use whiskers to feel their world. A rat, for example, has 60 whiskers, each attached to a follicle under the skin. These follicles can determine how much pressure is applied to a whisker and how much a whisker is bent when it touches an object. This information is then sent to the brain, where it is decoded to create a picture of the surrounding environment.

Researchers have been able to map this sensory network in rats using a 3D laser scanner. Three rats' faces were scanned to build up an exact picture of their whiskers and cheeks. Computational models were then applied to simulate how a rat moves when exploring with its whiskers.

The model is not expected to directly replace the use of rats in the laboratory. However, it may predict how informative certain experiments are likely to be before they are carried out on animals. In the long term it could both make research into the rat nervous system more effective and reduce the number of rats that need to be used.

Understanding the mechanics of the rat whisker sense system may also help scientists understand the human sense of touch.