Somatosensation in the superior colliculus of the star-nosed mole



The superior colliculus (or optic tectum in nonmammals) plays a critical role in the visual system and is essential for integrating sensory inputs to guide eye and head movements. However, what is the role of the superior colliculus (SC) in species that depend almost exclusively on touch? In this study we examined the SC of the star-nosed mole, a subterranean mammal that, instead of using vision, explores its environment using its tactile star. The star acts like a mechanosensory eye with a central tactile fovea that is constantly shifted in a saccadic manner. Multiunit microelectrode recordings were used to determine the topography and receptive field organization of somatosensory inputs to the SC and to test for visual and auditory responses. Here we report an SC dominated by somatosensory inputs in which neurons in all layers responded to mechanosensory stimulation, forming a topographic representation of contralateral body dominated by the mechanosensory star. Receptive fields were large, and appendage representations overlapped, suggesting that the SC may use a distributed, population code to guide the saccadic movements of the mole's touch fovea. No auditory or visual responses were recorded from the SC, although neurons in the neighboring inferior colliculus responded to auditory stimuli. Layers IVb–VII were identified, and a layer superficial to IVb contained neurons that responded to somatosensory stimulation, suggesting that there are unique patterns of afferents in the star-nosed mole's SC. J. Comp. Neurol. 464:415–425, 2003. © 2003 Wiley-Liss, Inc.