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The whisking oscillator circuit


Central oscillators are primordial neural circuits that generate and control rhythmic movements1,2. Mechanistic understanding of these circuits requires genetic identification of the oscillator neurons and their synaptic connections to enable targeted electrophysiological recording and causal manipulation during behaviours. However, such targeting remains a challenge with mammalian systems. Here we delimit the oscillator circuit that drives rhythmic whisking—a motor action that is central to foraging and active sensing in rodents3,4. We found that the whisking oscillator consists of parvalbumin-expressing inhibitory neurons located in the vibrissa intermediate reticular nucleus (vIRtPV) in the brainstem. vIRtPV neurons receive descending excitatory inputs and form recurrent inhibitory connections among themselves. Silencing vIRtPV neurons eliminated rhythmic whisking and resulted in sustained vibrissae protraction. In vivo recording of opto-tagged vIRtPV neurons in awake mice showed that these cells spike tonically when animals are at rest, and transition to rhythmic bursting at the onset of whisking, suggesting that rhythm generation is probably the result of network dynamics, as opposed to intrinsic cellular properties. Notably, ablating inhibitory synaptic inputs to vIRtPV neurons quenched their rhythmic bursting, impaired the tonic-to-bursting transition and abolished regular whisking. Thus, the whisking oscillator is an all-inhibitory network and recurrent synaptic inhibition has a key role in its rhythmogenesis.

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Fig. 1: Molecular and functional characterization of PV+ premotor vIRt neurons.
Fig. 2: Response characteristics of vIRtPV premotor neurons during whisking behaviour.
Fig. 3: Characterizing presynaptic inputs to vIRtPV neurons (pre-vIRtPV cells).
Fig. 4: Elimination of inhibitory synaptic inputs onto vIRtPV neurons impairs the generation of intervening whisking and abolishes their rhythmic bursting.

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We thank the members of the Wang laboratory and the aABC U19 BRAIN Circuit Team for discussions and suggestions; B.-X. Han and S. Choi for mouse colony maintenance; and staff at the Boston Children’s Hospital Viral Core for the production of AAV2retro-CAG-Cre. This work is supported by NIH grants U19 NS107466 and R01 NS077986.

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Authors and Affiliations



J.T., V.P. and F.W. conceptualized the project, designed experiments and wrote the paper with input from all of the authors. J.T. and V.P. performed the majority of the experiments with help from J.L., P.M.T. and S.L.; L.C. performed slice electrophysiology with crucial support from Z.H.; J.T., V.P., J.L. and P.M.T. analysed data. S.Z. and A.H. produced several viral vectors. D.G. and D.K. contributed to behaviour and electrophysiology data analysis and theoretical issues, and provided help with the intra-aural illumination opto-tagging. F.W. supervised all of the work.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Jun Takatoh or Fan Wang.

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Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Fig. 1 Anatomical and functional characterization of vIRtvGlut2 neurons.

a, Representative image of vibrissa premotor neurons (green) in vIRt traced by a three-step monosynaptic rabies virus tracing method shown in Fig. 1. vGlut2 (red) mRNA were visualized by HCR RNA-FISH. b, Molecular identity of premotor vIRt neurons. 67.0 ± 1.0% (n = 4) and 22.8 ± 1.3% (n = 3) of premotor vIRt neurons are vGat+ and vGlut2+, respectively. 69.6 ± 3.4% (n = 4) of vGat+ premotor vIRt neurons are PV+. c, Strategy for labelling vGlut2+ premotor vIRt neurons (vIRtvGlut2). Retrograde lentivirus carrying FlpO (RG-LV-FlpO) and AAV carrying Cre- and Flp-dependent-EYFP (AAV2/8-Con/Fon-EYFP) are injected into the vFMN and vIRt of the vGlut2-Cre animal, respectively. c, Projection pattern of vIRtvGlut2 neurons in the vFMN. d’,d’’,d’’’, High-magnification views of the boxed areas in d. The dorsolateral (d’), lateral (d’’), and ventrolateral (d’’’) facial motor subnuclei that contain motoneurons innervating the nasolabialis/maxillolabialis, nasolabialis profundus, and intrinsic muscles, respectively. e, A schematic of vIRtvGlut2 silencing experiment. f, Experimental setup for vibrissa tracking. One second running triggers 1 s continuous 561 nm laser stimulation. g, Representative image of NpHR3.3-EYFP expression in vIRt. h, Example vibrissa trace during laser-OFF and -ON period. i, Quantification of whisking amplitude (Laser-OFF, 7.9 ± 1.2° vs. Laser-ON, 7.9 ± 1.3°, n = 6, p = 0.8438, Wilcoxon signed-rank test). j, Quantification of whisking midpoint (Laser-OFF, 53.5 ± 3.1° vs. Laser-ON, 55.5 ± 3.5°, n = 6, p = 0.1562, Wilcoxon signed-rank test). k, Power spectrum analysis of whisking frequency in Laser-OFF and -ON period. Shaded areas are mean ± s.e.m. Data are mean ± s.e.m. Brain sections were counterstained with Neurotrace Blue (d, g).

Source data

Extended Data Fig. 2 Optogenetic silencing of vIRtPV neurons also impaired whisking.

a, A schematic of vIRt PV GtACR2 silencing experiment. b, Representative image of GtACR2 expression and the optic fibre track. c, Optic fibre tip placements over vIRt from all AAV-Flex-GtACR2-GFP injected animals. d, Experimental setup for vibrissa tracking. One second running triggers 1 s continuous 473 nm laser stimulation. e, Example vibrissa trace during laser-OFF and -ON period. f, Quantification of whisking amplitude (Laser-OFF, 15.6 ± 0.7° vs. Laser-ON, 10.2 ± 1.1°, n = 5, p = 0.0312, Wilcoxon signed-rank test). g, Power spectrum analysis of whisking frequency in Laser-OFF and -ON period. Data are mean ± s.e.m. * P ≤ 0.05. Brain sections were counterstained with Neurotrace Blue (b).

Source data

Extended Data Fig. 3 Antidromic opto-tagging of a ChRmine-expressing vIRtPV neuron via light stimulation through the ear.

a, Overlapped average waveform, before (black) and during (red) stimulation periods. b, Raster plot of spike times aligned to stimulation onset for 40 light pulses. c, Example single channel recording trace showing antidromic spikes from the opto-tagged unit during a light pulse. d, Firing rate of that unit averaged over 40 light stimulations epochs. e, Unit activity during transition from resting to whisking state. vibrissa angle traces for the ipsilateral C2 vibrissa. Bottom: Spike raster plot for this opto-tagged vIRtPV-ChRmine neuron. f, Phase tuning. Average spike rate across whisking phases for this opto-tagged vIRtPV-ChRmine neuron, in polar (top) and cartesian coordinates (bottom).

Extended Data Fig. 4 Slow oscillation vIRt units and additional analysis of transition from tonic to rhythmic firing of vIRt units.

a, b, Two vIRt units with “slow” rhythmic activity patterns. Top: breathing trace. Middle: Vibrissa angle and midpoint traces. Bottom: raster plot of spiking events (protraction phases shown in beige). c, Top: vibrissa trace and raster plot for a retraction unit. Bottom: Time-frequency spectrum of that spiking activity. The transition to rhythmic bursting appears as a high power frequency band, corresponding to whisking frequency. d, Same as c, for a “slow” oscillation unit. Here the transition to whisking shows a low frequency band, similar to vibrissa midpoint variations or breathing rhythm. e, Left: Time-frequency spiking spectrum for a retraction unit, averaged over all whisking bouts. Right: Inter-spike interval histograms for that retraction unit. Red, overall ISI. Blue, ISI during long whisking bouts. The ISI distribution becomes bimodal, with a strong peak at short interval corresponding to bursts. f, same as e, for a “slow” oscillation unit.

Extended Data Fig. 5 Elevated extracellular potassium concentrations induce bursting but not rhythmic activity in vIRtPV neurons.

a,b, Cell-attached recording of a vIRtPV unit before (a) and after (b) bath application of K 9 mM. c, Representative histological verification of targeted recording. One of the tdTomato-expressing vIRtPV in slice is filled with green Alexa 488 dye from the recording pipette. d, Example of burst, post increase of extracellular potassium concentration. e, f, Inter-spike interval distribution, pre and post increase of extracellular potassium concentration, for one cell (e, pre: top, post: bottom) and all cells (f, ISI shown in log scale. Dash line: 40 Hz). g, Percentage of ISIs shorter than 25 ms (i.e., above 40 Hz), pre and post event, for all cells (average shown in black). h, Inter-burst frequency, for each cell, pre and post. No bursting frequency band is observed for any cell.

Source data

Extended Data Fig. 6 Pre-vIRtPV neurons in the brainstem and motor cortex, and neurotransmitter characterization of pre-vIRtPV neurons.

a, Representative image of ΔG-GFP labelled pre-vIRtPV neurons in the brainstem (continued from Fig. 3c). Scale bars, 200 µm. b, Representative image of ΔG-GFP labelled pre-vIRtPV neurons in the cortex. Scale bar, 500 µm. c, Zoomed image of the boxed area in b, d, Representative 3D reconstructed image of labelled pre-vIRtPV neurons in the cortex (magenta). Shaded areas denote the primary motor (MOp) and secondary motor cortices (MOs). e, Neurotransmitter phenotype of pre-vIRtPV neurons determined by fluorescent in situ hybridization or HCR RNA-FISH.

Extended Data Fig. 7 Comparison of the distributions of vIRtPV presynaptic neurons and vibrissal premotor neurons.

a, Three-dimensionally reconstructed vIRtPV presynaptic neurons (vIRt-pre, cyan, n = 3) and vibrissal premotor neurons (vibrissa-pre, magenta, n = 4) in the Allen Mouse Brain CCF in coronal planes. b, Density analysis of presynaptic neurons (vIRt-pre, cyan, n = 3) and vibrissal premotor neurons (vibrissa-pre, magenta, n = 4) in coronal and sagittal planes. DN, dentate nucleus; IP, interposed nucleus.

Extended Data Fig. 8 Additional results from vIRtPV-ChRmine-GFE3 mice.

a, Average whisking activity of a vIRtPV-ChRmine-GFE3 mouse, showing the mean of the pixel intensity difference between each consecutive video frame. Blue to red colour scale: low to high activity. In contrast to the ipsilateral (GFE3) side, contralateral whisking is highly active across the whole whisking range. b, Increased firing, but no rhythmic activity at whisking initiation for a opto-tagged vIRtPV-ChRmine-GFE3 unit (whisking initiation time determined from contralateral C2 vibrissa). c, Whisking phase tuning of all opto-tagged vIRtPV-ChRmine-GFE3 single units (conventions as in Figs. 2 and 4).

Extended Data Fig. 9 Schematic model of the vIRtPV circuit that generates rhythmic whisking in normal and experimental conditions.

a, In Resting state, vIRtPV neurons show unsynchronized tonic activity. b, In Normal whisking condition, tonic excitatory inputs to vFMN protractor motoneurons protract vibrissae. Concurrently, tonic excitatory inputs to vIRtPV neurons induce recurrent inhibition within vIRtPV and which in turn switches vIRtPV from tonic firing to synchronized rhythmic bursting mode. The rhythmic signal from vIRtPV periodically silences vFMN protractor motoneurons and leads to rhythmic whisking. The rhythmic inhibitory signal from the inspiratory rhythm generator preBötC resets the activity of vIRtPV. The expiratory oscillator activates vFMN retractor motoneurons. c, In vIRtPV-TeLC condition, outputs from vIRtPV are abolished. Lack of inhibition from vIRtPV results in strong continuous activation of vFMN protractor motoneurons and strong protraction of vibrissae. Because of the strong tonic activity of protractor intrinsic muscles, extrinsic retractor muscles play a minor role in vibrissa movement. d, In vIRtPV-GFE3 condition, tonic excitation induces strong unsynchronized tonic inhibitory outputs from vIRtPV to vFMN protractor motoneurons, which results in a less protracted midpoint compared with vIRtPV-TeLC’s. Under this condition, the contribution of expiratory oscillator-extrinsic retractor muscles becomes pronounced. A group of inhibitory neurons in the left top corner of vIRt indicates PV/vGat+ vIRt neurons. Dotted lines denote putative connections.

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Supplementary Video 1

TeLC-mediated silencing of vIRtPV neurons. High-speed videography showing whisking deficits after TeLC silencing of vIRtPV neurons (left). The control side (right) shows no behavioural deficit. The video is slowed five times from the original speed.

Supplementary Video 2

vIRtPV neurons show rhythmic bursting in the whisking retraction phase. High-speed videography showing a mouse whisking while running on a wheel. The whisking phase polar plot is overlaid in the bottom left corner, with the current whisking phase shown as a green bar. Spikes from a simultaneously recorded opto-tagged vIRtPV retraction unit are indicated by an audio cue and red dot on the whisking phase polar plot.

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Takatoh, J., Prevosto, V., Thompson, P.M. et al. The whisking oscillator circuit. Nature 609, 560–568 (2022).

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