Play and tickling responses map to the lateral columns of the rat periaqueductal gray

Natalie Gloveli, Jean Simonnet, Wei Tang, Miguel Concha-Miranda, Eduard Maier, Anton Dvorzhak, Dietmar Schmitz and Michael Brecht

The persistence of play after decortication points to a subcortical mechanism of play control. We found that global blockade of the rat periaqueductal gray with either muscimol or lidocaine interfered with ticklishness and play. We recorded vocalizations and neural activity from the periaqueductal gray of young, playful rats during interspecific touch, play, and tickling. Rats vocalized weakly to touch and more strongly to play and tickling. Periaqueductal gray units showed diverse but strong modulation to tickling and play. Hierarchical clustering based on neuronal responses to play and tickling revealed functional clusters mapping to different periaqueductal gray columns. Specifically, we observed play-neutral/tickling-inhibited and tickling/play-neutral units in dorsolateral and dorsomedial periaqueductal gray columns. In contrast, strongly play/tickling-excited units mapped to the lateral columns and were suppressed by anxiogenic conditions. Optogenetic inactivation of lateral periaqueductal columns disrupted ticklishness and play. We conclude that the lateral periaqueductal gray columns are decisive for play and laughter.

Neuron. 111, 1–12 (2023)

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