Probing Somatosensory Representations in the Brainstem of Awake Monkeys

Type of Award: Catalyst
Date Awarded: April 2014
Award End Date: March 2015
Amount Awarded: $ 200,000.00
PI(s): Lee Miller, PhD, NU; Sliman Bensmaia, PhD, UChicago;

Abstract: We seek CBC Catalyst funding toward a collaborative effort among senior and junior faculty at Northwestern University and the University of Chicago, including neuroscientists, a biomedical engineer and a neurosurgeon, to achieve the first recordings of signals from the cuneate nucleus (CN) in awake animals. CN is a tiny, previously inaccessible, structure at the base of the brainstem that is the gateway for sensory signals from our arms to our brain. A Catalyst award will allow us to generate foundational scientific data that will illuminate the poorly understood role of CN in processing information about somatosensation--our sense of touch and limb position. Furthermore, these experiments will allow us to establish the scientific foundation for a groundbreaking longer-term effort: to use CN as a neural interface to restore touch and proprioception for amputees and patients with spinal cord injury.

The neural basis of many aspects of somatosensation are well known: The properties of afferents innervating the skin, joints, and muscles have been studied and modeled extensively, as have those of neurons in somatosensory cortex. However, the role of CN in somatosensory processing is largely unknown. Anatomical studies have revealed the location of different types of ascending inputs within CN and the presence of descending, cortical inputs, but the functional properties of CN neurons have never been probed in awake animals because of the technical difficulty of accessing this structure. To fill this gap, we will implant an electrode array in the CN of Rhesus macaques using a unique, bioinspired adhesive. We will record the activity of CN neurons while the monkeys perform a variety of sensory and motor tasks. Preliminary results enabled by the Catalyst award will fill a significant gap in knowledge about somatosensory processing, while opening an exciting new avenue for the development of sensory neuroprostheses.