Skin vibrations sensed by tactile receptors contribute significantly to the perception of object properties during tactile exploration [1-4] and to sensorimotor control during object manipulation . Sustained low-frequency skin vibration (<60 Hz) evokes a distinct tactile sensation referred to as flutter whose frequency can be clearly perceived . How afferent spiking activity translates into the perception of frequency is still unknown. Measures based on mean spike rates of neurons in the primary somatosensory cortex are sufficient to explain performance in some frequency discrimination tasks [7-11]; however, there is emerging evidence that stimuli can be distinguished based also on temporal features of neural activity [12, 13]. Our study's advance is to demonstrate that temporal features are fundamental for vibrotactile frequency perception. Pulsatile mechanical stimuli were used to elicit specified temporal spike train patterns in tactile afferents, and subsequently psychophysical methods were employed to characterize human frequency perception. Remarkably, the most salient temporal feature determining vibrotactile frequency was not the underlying periodicity but, rather, the duration of the silent gap between successive bursts of neural activity. This burst gap code for frequency represents a previously unknown form of neural coding in the tactile sensory system, which parallels auditory pitch perception mechanisms based on purely temporal information where longer inter-pulse intervals receive higher perceptual weights than short intervals . Our study also demonstrates that human perception of stimuli can be determined exclusively by temporal features of spike trains independent of the mean spike rate and without contribution from population response factors.
The authors examined whether feedforward video self-modeling (FF VSM) would improve control over the affected limb, movement self-confidence, movement self-consciousness, and well-being in 18 stroke survivors. Participants completed a cup transport task and 2 questionnaires related to psychological processes pre- and postintervention. Pretest video footage of the unaffected limb performing the task was edited to create a best-of or mirror-reversed training DVD, creating the illusion that patients were performing proficiently with the affected limb. The training yielded significant improvements for the forward movement of the affected limb compared to the unaffected limb. Significant improvements were also seen in movement self-confidence, movement self-consciousness, and well-being. FF VSM appears to be a viable way to improve motor ability in populations with movement disorders.
Muscle spindles provide exquisitely sensitive proprioceptive information regarding joint position and movement. Through passively driven length changes in the muscle-tendon unit (MTU), muscle spindles detect joint rotations because of their in-parallel mechanical linkage to muscle fascicles. In human microneurography studies, muscle fascicles are assumed to follow the MTU and, as such, fascicle length is not measured in such studies. However, under certain mechanical conditions, compliant structures can act to decouple the fascicles, and, therefore, the spindles, from the MTU. Such decoupling may reduce the fidelity by which muscle spindles encode joint position and movement. The aim of the present study was to measure, for the first time, both the changes in firing of single muscle spindle afferents and changes in muscle fascicle length in vivo from the tibialis anterior muscle (TA) during passive rotations about the ankle. Unitary recordings were made from 15 muscle spindle afferents supplying TA via a microelectrode inserted into the common peroneal nerve. Ultrasonography was used to measure the length of an individual fascicle of TA. We saw a strong correlation between fascicle length and firing rate during passive ankle rotations of varying rates (0.1-0.5 Hz) and amplitudes (1-9°). In particular, we saw responses observed at relatively small changes in muscle length that highlight the sensitivity of the TA muscle to small length changes. This study is the first to measure spindle firing and fascicle dynamics in vivo and provides an experimental basis for further understanding the link between fascicle length, MTU length, and spindle firing patterns.NEW & NOTEWORTHY Muscle spindles are exquisitely sensitive to changes in muscle length, but recordings from human muscle spindle afferents are usually correlated with joint angle rather than muscle fascicle length. In this study, we monitored both muscle fascicle length and spindle firing from the human tibialis anterior muscle in vivo. Our findings are the first to measure these signals in vivo and provide an experimental basis for exploring this link further.
These observations suggest that C-LTMRs need not be regarded as a redundant tactile system, but appear to complement normal large-myelinated-fibre tactile function. Convergent findings in glabrous and hairy skin lend support for an underlying system of innocuous mechanoreception with Cav3.2-expressing unmyelinated fibres.
Dexterous manipulation is not possible without sensory information about object properties and manipulative forces. Fundamental neuroscience has been unable to demonstrate how information about multiple stimulus parameters may be continuously extracted, concurrently, from a population of tactile afferents. This is the first study to demonstrate this, using spike trains recorded from tactile afferents innervating the monkey fingerpad. A multiple-regression model, requiring no a priori knowledge of stimulus-onset times or stimulus combination, was developed to obtain continuous estimates of instantaneous force and torque. The stimuli consisted of a normal-force ramp (to a plateau of 1.8, 2.2, or 2.5 N), on top of which -3.5, -2.0, 0, +2.0, or +3.5 mNm torque was applied about the normal to the skin surface. The model inputs were sliding windows of binned spike counts recorded from each afferent. Models were trained and tested by 15-fold cross-validation to estimate instantaneous normal force and torque over the entire stimulation period. With the use of the spike trains from 58 slow-adapting type I and 25 fast-adapting type I afferents, the instantaneous normal force and torque could be estimated with small error. This study demonstrated that instantaneous force and torque parameters could be reliably extracted from a small number of tactile afferent responses in a real-time fashion with stimulus combinations that the model had not been exposed to during training. Analysis of the model weights may reveal how interactions between stimulus parameters could be disentangled for complex population responses and could be used to test neurophysiologically relevant hypotheses about encoding mechanisms.
Well-organized somatotopic representation of the hand is required to interpret input from cutaneous mechanoreceptors. Previous reports have identified patients with various distortions of somatotopic representation after stroke. Importantly, those patients were investigated years after the stroke, indicating that afferent signal regained access to the cortical circuits; however, further plastic changes, which would re-establish somatotopic order and ability to correctly localize tactile stimuli, did not follow. Thus, it was not known whether somatotopic organization could be restored in such patients and whether there is a potential for new rehabilitation strategies. This is the first case report demonstrating normalization of somatotopic representation.
It is well known that signals encoded by mechanoreceptors facilitate precise object manipulation in humans. It is therefore of interest to study signals encoded by the mechanoreceptors because this will contribute further towards the understanding of fundamental sensory mechanisms that are responsible for coordinating force components during object manipulation. From a practical point of view, this may suggest strategies for designing sensory-controlled biomedical devices and robotic manipulators. We use a two-stage nonlinear decoding paradigm to reconstruct the force stimulus given signals from slowly adapting type one (SA-I) tactile afferents. First, we describe a nonhomogeneous Poisson encoding model which is a function of the force stimulus and the force's rate of change. In the decoding phase, we use a recursive nonlinear Bayesian filter to reconstruct the force profile, given the SA-I spike patterns and parameters described by the encoding model. Under the current encoding model, the mode ratio of force to its derivative is: 1.26 to 1.02. This indicates that the force derivative contributes significantly to the rate of change to the SA-I afferent spike modulation. Furthermore, using recursive Bayesian decoding algorithms is advantageous because it can incorporate past and current information in order to make predictions–consistent with neural systems–with little computational resources. This makes it suitable for interfacing with prostheses.
Adjustments to frictional forces are crucial to maintain a safe grip during precision object handling in both humans and robotic manipulators. The aim of this work was to investigate whether a population of human tactile afferents can provide information about the current tangential/normal force ratio expressed as the percentage of the critical load capacity – the tangential/normal force ratio at which the object would slip. A smooth stimulation surface was tested on the fingertip under three frictional conditions, with a 4 N normal force and a tangential force generated by motion in the ulnar or distal direction at a fixed speed. During stimulation, the responses of 29 afferents (12 SA-I, 2 SA-II, 12 FA-I, 3 FA-II) were recorded. A multiple regression model was trained and tested using cross-validation to estimate the percentage of the critical load capacity in real-time as the tangential force increased. The features for the model were the number of spikes from each afferent in windows of fixed length (50, 100 or 200 ms) around points spanning the range from 50% to 100% of the critical load capacity, in 5% increments. The mean regression estimate error was less than 1% of the critical load capacity with a standard deviation between 5% and 10%. A larger number of afferents is expected to improve the estimate error. This work is important for understanding human dexterous manipulation and inspiring improvements in robotic grippers and prostheses.
Neurophysiological studies in primates have found that direction-sensitive neurons in the primary somatosensory cortex (SI) generally increase their response rate with increasing speed of object motion across the skin and show little evidence of speed tuning. We employed psychophysics to determine whether human perception of motion direction could be explained by features of such neurons and whether evidence can be found for a speed-tuned process. After adaptation to motion across the skin, a subsequently presented dynamic test stimulus yields an impression of motion in the opposite direction. We measured the strength of this tactile motion aftereffect (tMAE) induced with different combinations of adapting and test speeds. Distal-to-proximal or proximal-to-distal adapting motion was applied to participants' index fingers using a tactile array, after which participants reported the perceived direction of a bidirectional test stimulus. An intensive code for speed, like that observed in SI neurons, predicts greater adaptation (and a stronger tMAE) the faster the adapting speed, regardless of the test speed. In contrast, speed tuning of direction-sensitive neurons predicts the greatest tMAE when the adapting and test stimuli have matching speeds. We found that the strength of the tMAE increased monotonically with adapting speed, regardless of the test speed, showing no evidence of speed tuning. Our data are consistent with neurophysiological findings that suggest an intensive code for speed along the motion processing pathways comprising neurons sensitive both to speed and direction of motion.
It is not known how changes in skin mechanics affect the responses of cutaneous mechanoreceptors in the finger pads to compression forces. We used venous occlusion to change the stiffness of the fingers and investigated whether this influenced the firing of low-threshold mechanoreceptors to surfaces of differing stiffness. Unitary recordings were made from 10 slowly adapting type I (SAI), 10 fast adapting type I (FAI) and 9 slowly adapting type II (SAII) units via tungsten microelectrodes inserted into the median nerve at the wrist. A servo-controlled stimulator applied ramp-and-hold forces (1, 2, and 4 N) at a constant loading and unloading rate (2 N/s) via a flat 2.5-cm-diameter silicone disk over the center of the finger pad. Nine silicone disks (objects), varying in compliance, were used. Venous occlusion, produced by inflating a sphygmomanometer cuff around the upper arm to 40 ± 5 mmHg, was used to induce swelling of the fingers and increase the compliance of the finger pulp. Venous occlusion had no effect on the firing rates of the SAI afferents, nor on the slopes of the relationship between mean firing rate and object compliance at each amplitude, but did significantly reduce the slopes for the FAI afferents. Although the SAII afferents possess a poor capacity to encode changes in object compliance, mean firing rates were significantly lower during venous occlusion. The finding that venous occlusion had no effect on the firing properties of SAI afferents indicates that these afferents preserve their capacity to encode changes in object compliance, despite changes in skin mechanics.
We simultaneously compared the sensitivity of single primary afferent neurons supplying the glabrous skin of the hand and the psychophysical amplitude discrimination thresholds in human subjects for a set of vibrotactile stimuli delivered to the receptive field. All recorded afferents had a dynamic range narrower than the range of amplitudes across which the subjects could discriminate. However, when the vibration amplitude was chosen to be within the steepest part of the afferent's stimulus-response function the response of single afferents, defined as the spike count over the vibration duration (500 ms), was often more sensitive in discriminating vibration amplitude than the perceptual judgment of the participants. We quantified how the neuronal performance depended on the integration window: for short windows the neuronal performance was inferior to the performance of the subject. The neuronal performance progressively improved with increasing spike count duration and reached a level significantly above that of the subjects when the integration window was 250 ms or longer. The superiority in performance of individual neurons over observers could reflect a nonoptimal integration window or be due to the presence of noise between the sensory periphery and the cortical decision stage. Additionally, it could indicate that the range of perceptual sensitivity comes at the cost of discrimination through pooling across neurons with different response functions.
We undertook a neurophysiological investigation of the responses of low-threshold mechanoreceptors in the human finger pad to surfaces of differing softness. Unitary recordings were made from 26 slowly adapting type I (SAI), 17 fast-adapting type I (FAI), and 9 slowly adapting type II (SAII) afferents via tungsten microelectrodes inserted into the median nerve at the wrist. A servo-controlled stimulator applied ramp-and-hold forces (1, 2, 4 N) at a constant loading and unloading rate (2 N/s) via a flat silicone disc over the center of the finger pad. Nine discs were used, which linearly increased in stiffness across the range. Population responses of the SAI afferents showed the greatest sensitivity to compliance, with a steep monotonic increase in mean firing rate with increasing stiffness (decreasing compliance) of the surface during the loading and plateau (but not unloading) phases. FAI afferents also showed a linear increase in firing during the loading but not unloading phase, although the slope was significantly lower than that of the SAI afferents at all amplitudes. Conversely, SAII afferents were influenced by object compliance only in certain conditions. Given their high density in the finger pads and their linear relationship between firing rate and object compliance during the loading and plateau phases, SAI afferents (together with FAI afferents during the loading phase) are ideally suited to contributing information on surface compliance to the overall estimation of softness, but the SAII afferents appear to play only a minor role.
Current prosthetic limbs are limited by a lack of tactile feedback. Slip feedback is particularly important to inform grip. Object slip is marked by both a change in the normal grip force applied and a change in force tangential to the fingertips. In this study, we demonstrate that a new multi-axial tactile sensor composed of gold nanoparticle strain gauges is able to record slip and reconstruct the X, Y, and Z forces incident on the sensor's surface due to a slipping object. We entered the X, Y, and Z force components generated by the slip event into a noisy leaky integrate and fire model to simulate the firing responses of SA1 and FA1 afferents. We also recorded a uniaxial normal force input representative of tactile contact. A single set of SA1 model and FA1 model parameters generated realistic firing patterns for both the slip and normal force recordings. These results suggest that canonical SA1 and FA1 afferent models could be used to generate biomimetic electrical stimulation patterns for both slip and touch stimuli. When used to activate the tactile afferents of an amputee, these electrical stimulation patterns could create natural and distinguishable slip and touch percepts for closed loop control of an upper limb neural prosthesis.
How complex tactile sensations are encoded by populations of afferent mechanoreceptors is currently not well understood. While much is known about how individual afferents respond to prescribed stimuli, their behavior as a population distributed across the fingertip has not been well described. In this study, tactile afferent mechanoreceptors in monkey fingertips were mechanically stimulated, using a flat disc shaped probe, with several magnitudes of normal force (1.8, 2.2 and 2.5 N) and torque (2.0 and 3.5 mNm), in clockwise and anticlockwise directions. Afferent nerve responses were acquired from 58 slowly-adapting (SA) type-I and 25 fast-adapting (FA) type-I isolated single cutaneous mechanoreceptive afferents, recorded from the median nerve. At 10 ms time intervals after the application of torque begins, a multiple regression model was trained and evaluated to estimate the magnitude of the applied normal force and torque. Averaged results over the 200 ms period after the torque reaches its maximum indicate that SA-I and FA-I afferents can both estimate the applied torque value. FA-I afferents gave the lowest estimation error mean and standard deviation of -0.051 ± 0.334 mNm for a target torque of 2.0 mNm, and 0.003 ± 0.414 mNm for a target torque of 3.5 mNm. However, while SA-I afferents could estimate normal force well, there was no significant difference (ANOVA, p=0.173) in the FA-I estimates of normal force, as this force had already been held constant for one second before the torque loading phase under analysis began.
Experimental pain induced in animals has shown that noxious stimulation of group III and IV afferents increases the firing of muscle spindles via a reflex excitation of fusimotor (γ) motoneurones. Chronic muscle pain has been hypothesized to develop as a result of a vicious cycle involving this mechanism. In order to explore the effects of long-lasting muscle pain on the fusimotor system, single unit muscle spindle afferents were recorded from 15 subjects. Afferent activity was recorded from foot and ankle extensor muscles whilst infusing hypertonic saline into the tibialis anterior muscle of the ipsilateral leg, producing moderate-strong pain lasting for ∼60 min. A change in fusimotor drive was inferred by observing changes in the mean discharge rate of spontaneously active muscle spindle afferents. Homonymous and heteronymous muscles remained relaxed and showed no increase in activity, arguing against any fusimotor-driven increase in motor activity, and there was no net change in the firing of muscle spindle afferents. We conclude that long-lasting stimulation of group III and IV afferents fails to excite fusimotor neurones and increase muscle spindle discharge. Accordingly, the vicious cycle theory has no functional basis for the development of myalgia in human subjects.
We recently showed that long-lasting muscle pain, induced by intramuscular infusion of hypertonic saline, evoked two patterns of cardiovascular responses across subjects: one group showed parallel increases in muscle sympathetic nerve activity (MSNA), blood pressure, and heart rate, while the other group showed parallel decreases. Given that MSNA is consistent day to day, we tested the hypothesis that individuals who show increases in MSNA during experimental muscle pain will show consistent responses over time. MSNA was recorded from the peroneal nerve, together with blood pressure and heart rate, during an intramuscular infusion of hypertonic saline causing pain for an hour in 15 subjects on two occasions, 2-27 weeks apart. Pain intensity ratings were not significantly different between the first (5.8 ± 0.4/10) and second (6.1 ± 0.2) recording sessions. While four subjects showed significant decreases in the first session (46.6 ± 9.2% of baseline) and significant increases in the second (159.6 ± 8.9%), in 11 subjects, there was consistency in the changes in MSNA over time: either a sustained decrease (55.6 ± 6.8%, n = 6) or a sustained increase (143.5 ± 6.1%, n = 5) occurred in both recording sessions. There were no differences in pain ratings between sessions for any subjects. We conclude that the changes in MSNA during long-lasting muscle pain are consistent over time in the majority of individuals, reflecting the importance of studying interindividual differences in physiology.
Clinical evaluation of somatosensory deficits in stroke patients is very limited and usually does not include testing of somatotopic organisation, which is a prerequisite for meaningful interpretation of sensory input and sensorimotor control. Detailed tactile testing of the left hand of a 54-year-old patient suffering from sensory deficit and central pain after a right-sided stroke revealed severe distortion of somatotopic sensory maps as evidenced by incorrect localisation of the point stimuli. Unlike previously reported gross somatotopic remapping taking place within reduced representational space after lesion, this is the first case report revealing chaotic scrambled somatosensory maps. While the incidence of such scrambled somatotopic representation of tactile input is not yet known in stroke patients, current observations indicate that in-depth investigations of somatotopic organisation of affected area may reveal the underlying cause for various functional deficits including central pain. Thus, new rehabilitation strategies may need to be developed specifically for such patients.
Tactile motion is susceptible to speed adaptation. This result complements previous reports of reliable direction aftereffects when using a dynamic test stimulus as together they describe how perception of a moving stimulus in touch depends on the immediate history of stimulation. Given that the tSAE is not direction sensitive, we argue that peripheral adaptation does not explain it, because primary afferents are direction sensitive with friction-creating stimuli like ours (thus motion in their preferred direction should result in greater adaptation, and if perceived speed were critically dependent on these afferents' response intensity, the tSAE should be direction sensitive). The adaptation that reduces perceived speed therefore seems to be of central origin.
We recently showed that acute muscle pain, induced by bolus intramuscular injection of hypertonic saline, causes a sustained increase in muscle sympathetic nerve activity (MSNA) and a modest increase in blood pressure and heart rate. However, it is not known whether long-lasting (tonic) pain, which more closely resembles chronic pain, causes a sustained increase in MSNA and blood pressure. We tested this hypothesis by recording MSNA in 12 healthy subjects. Tonic pain was induced for ~60 min by slow intramuscular infusion of hypertonic saline (7%) into the ipsilateral tibialis anterior muscle. Pain was sustained at a tolerable level (5/10 to 6/10 on a visual analog scale). Seven subjects showed progressive increases in mean MSNA amplitude during tonic pain, increasing to 154 ± 17% (SEM) at 45 min and remaining essentially constant for the duration of the infusion. In these subjects, blood pressure and heart rate also increased. Conversely, for the other five subjects MSNA showed a progressive decline, with a peak fall of 67 ± 11% at 40 min; blood pressure and heart rate also fell in these subjects. We conclude that tonic muscle pain has long-lasting effects on the sympathetic control of blood pressure, causing a sustained increase in some subjects yet a sustained decrease in others. This may have implications for individual differences in the cardiovascular consequences of chronic pain.
Assessment of spontaneous slow waves in the peripheral blood volume using the photoplethysmogram (PPG) has shown potential clinical value, but the physiological correlates of these fluctuations have not been fully elucidated. This study addressed the contribution of arterial pressure and muscle sympathetic nerve activity (MSNA) in beat-to-beat PPG variability in resting humans under spontaneous breathing conditions. Peripheral PPG waveforms were measured from the fingertip, earlobe, and toe in young and healthy individuals (n = 13), together with the arterial pressure waveform, electrocardiogram, respiration, and direct measurement of MSNA by microneurography. Cross-spectral coherence analysis revealed that among the PPG waveforms, low-frequency fluctuations (0.04-0.15 Hz) in the ear PPG had the highest coherence with arterial pressure (0.71 ± 0.15) and MSNA (0.44 ± 0.18, with a peak of 0.71 ± 0.16 at 0.10 ± 0.03 Hz). The normalized midfrequency powers (0.08-0.15 Hz), with an emphasis on the 0.1-Hz region, were positively correlated between MSNA and the ear PPG (r = 0.77, P = 0.002). Finger and toe PPGs had lower coherence with arterial pressure (0.35 ± 0.10 and 0.30 ± 0.11, respectively) and MSNA (0.33 ± 0.10 and 0.26 ± 0.10, respectively) in the LF band but displayed higher coherence between themselves (0.54 ± 0.09) compared with the ear (P < 0.001), which may suggest the dominance of regional vasomotor activities and a common sympathetic influence in the glabrous skin. These findings highlight the differential mechanisms governing PPG waveform fluctuations across different body sites. Spontaneous PPG variability in the ear includes a major contribution from arterial pressure and MSNA, which may provide a rationale for its clinical utility.
Arterial pulsations are known to modulate muscle spindle firing; however, the physiological significance of such synchronised modulation has not been investigated. Unitary recordings were made from 75 human muscle spindle afferents innervating the pretibial muscles. The modulation of muscle spindle discharge by arterial pulsations was evaluated by R-wave triggered averaging and power spectral analysis. We describe various effects arterial pulsations may have on muscle spindle afferent discharge. Afferents could be "driven" by arterial pulsations, e.g., showing no other spontaneous activity than spikes generated with cardiac rhythmicity. Among afferents showing ongoing discharge that was not primarily related to cardiac rhythmicity we illustrate several mechanisms by which individual spikes may become phase-locked. However, in the majority of afferents the discharge rate was modulated by the pulse wave without spikes being phase locked. Then we assessed whether these influences changed in two physiological conditions in which a sustained increase in muscle sympathetic nerve activity was observed without activation of fusimotor neurones: a maximal inspiratory breath-hold, which causes a fall in systolic pressure, and acute muscle pain, which causes an increase in systolic pressure. The majority of primary muscle spindle afferents displayed pulse-wave modulation, but neither apnoea nor pain had any significant effect on the strength of this modulation, suggesting that the physiological noise injected by the arterial pulsations is robust and relatively insensitive to fluctuations in blood pressure. Within the afferent population there was a similar number of muscle spindles that were inhibited and that were excited by the arterial pulse wave, indicating that after signal integration at the population level, arterial pulsations of opposite polarity would cancel each other out. We speculate that with close-to-threshold stimuli the arterial pulsations may serve as an endogenous noise source that may synchronise the sporadic discharge within the afferent population and thus facilitate the detection of weak stimuli.