Abstract: Little is known about whether information transfer at primary sensory thalamic nuclei is modified by behavioral context. Here we studied the influence of previous decisions/rewards on current choices and preceding spike responses of ventro-posterior medial thalamus (VPm, the primary sensory thalamus in the rat whisker-related tactile system). We trained head-fixed rats to detect a ramp-like deflection of one whisker interspersed within ongoing white noise stimulation. Using generative modeling of behavior, we identify two task-related variables that are predictive of actual decisions. The first reflects task engagement on a local scale (‘trial history’- defined as the decisions and outcomes of a small number of past trials), while the other captures behavioral dynamics on a global scale (‘satiation’- slow dynamics of the response pattern along an entire session). While satiation brought about a slow drift from Go to NoGo decisions during the session, trial history was related to local (trial-by-trial) patterning of Go and NoGo decisions. A second model that related the same predictors first to VPm spike responses, and from there to decisions, indicated that spiking, in contrast to behavior, is sensitive to trial history but relatively insensitive to satiation. Trial history influences VPM spike rates and regularity such that a history of Go decisions would predict fewer noise-driven spikes (but more regular ones), and more ramp-driven spikes. Neuronal activity in VPm, thus, is sensitive to local behavioral history, and may play an important role in higher order cognitive signaling.
Significance statement: It is an important question for perceptual and brain functions to find out whether cognitive signals modulate the sensory signal stream and if so, where in the brain this happens. This study provides evidence that decision and reward history can already be reflected in the ascending sensory pathway, on the level of first order sensory thalamus. Cognitive signals are relayed very selectively such that only local trial history (spanning a few trials) but not global history (spanning an entire session) are reflected.