Rat whisking behavior is characterized by high amounts of bilateral coordination in which whisker movements on both sides of the face are linked. To elucidate the neural substrate that might mediate this bilateral coordination, neuronal tracers were used to characterize the bilateral distribution of corticothalamic projections from primary motor (MI) cortex. Some rats received tracers in the MI whisker region, whereas others received tracers in the MI forepaw region. The MI whisker region projects bilaterally to the anteromedial (AM), ventromedial (VM), and ventrolateral (VL) nuclei, and to parts of the intralaminar nuclei. By contrast, the MI forepaw region sends virtually no projections to the contralateral thalamus. Consistent with these findings, bilateral injections of different tracers into the MI whisker region of each hemisphere produced tracer overlap on both sides of the thalamus. Furthermore, MI whisker projections to the contralateral thalamus terminate in close proximity to the thalamocortical neurons that project to the MI whisker region of that contralateral hemisphere. The terminal endings of the contralateral corticothalamic projections contain small synaptic varicosities and other features that resemble the modulator pathways described for other corticothalamic projection systems. In addition, tracer injections into AM, VM, and VL revealed dense clusters of labeled neurons in layer VI of the medial agranular (Agm) zone, which corresponds to the MI whisker region. These results suggest that projections from the MI whisker region to the contralateral thalamus may modulate the callosal interactions that are presumed to play a role in coordinating bilateral whisking behavior.
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