A Scientific Model of How Whiskers Work

Mitra Hartmann, an associate professor at Northwestern University, is studying the mechanics of rat whiskers to learn about human sensory perception. This episode of Science Bytes, produced by Kikim Media for PBS and the Public Library of Science, visits Hartmann's SeNSE lab to see how scientists are creating a 3-D model of whiskers to develop a formula for how they feed sensory input to the brain. They call it a "digital rat." 

The SeNSE lab describes the scope of their work on their site

The long term goal of our laboratory is to better understand how movement and touch are combined in the brain to enable perception. We use rats as a model to study the sense of touch. Rats, however, don't use their "hands" (paws) very much to explore objects. Sometimes they do, but mostly they use their whiskers. If you've ever watched a rat run around, you'll notice that they're constantly touching their noses to objects. If you were able to use a slow-motion video camera to watch the rat, as our laboratory does, what you would see is that the rat is continuously brushing its whiskers against objects very rapidly, between 5 and 25 times a second. This behavior is called "whisking." The rat is touching different objects to figure out their location, size, shape, and texture.

Our laboratory is particularly interested in the contact patterns that the rat's whiskers make as it explores different objects, and in the mechanics of whisking movements. Some of the projects we work on in our lab are:

  • We construct small robots with whiskers and simulations of whisker movements to figure out an object's shape
  • We use high-speed video to quantify rat whisking behavior
  • We developed a three-dimensional model of the rat whisker array. The model can be used to simulate the head and whisker movements that a rat may use to explore different objects.

For more videos from Kikim Media, visit http://www.kikim.com.

Kasia Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg is the executive producer for video at The AtlanticMore

Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg joined The Atlantic in 2011 to launch its video channel and, in 2013, create its in-house video production department. She leads the development and production of original documentaries, interviews, and other video content for The Atlantic. Previously, she worked as a producer at Al Gore’s Current TV and as a content strategist and documentary producer in San Francisco. She studied filmmaking and digital media at Harvard University.

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