Curr Biol. 2020 Aug 17;30(16):3065-3074.e5. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2020.05.064. Epub 2020 Jun 11.
In rodent whisker sensation, whisker position signals, including whisking phase, are integrated with touch signals to enable spatially accurate tactile perception, but other functions of phase coding are unclear. We investigate how phase coding affects the neural coding of surface features during surface whisking. In mice performing rough-smooth discrimination, S1 units exhibit much stronger phase tuning during surface whisking than in prior studies of whisking in air. Among putative pyramidal cells, preferred phase tiles phase space, but protraction phases are strongly over-represented. Fast-spiking units are nearly all protraction tuned. This protraction bias increases the coding of stick-slip whisker events during protraction, suggesting that surface features are preferentially encoded during protraction. Correspondingly, protraction-tuned units encode rough-smooth texture better than retraction-tuned units and encode the precise spatial location of surface ridges with higher acuity. This suggests that protraction is the main information-gathering phase for high-resolution surface features, with phase coding organized to support this function.