Published on December 12, 2012 at 12:33 PM
"In this paper, we showed that the timing of spikes evoked by naturalistic vibrations matters, not just for artificial stimuli in the lab," Bensmaia said. "It's actually true for the kinds of stimuli that you would experience in everyday life."
What this means is that given a certain texture, we know the frequency of vibrations it will produce in the skin, and subsequently in the nerve.
In other words, if you knew the frequency of silk as your finger passes over it, you could reproduce the feeling by stimulating the nerves with that same frequency without ever touching the fabric.
But this study is just part of ongoing research for Bensmaia's team on how humans incorporate our sense of touch into more sophisticated concepts like texture, shape, and motion.
Researchers could someday use this model of timing and frequency of afferent responses to simulate the sensation of texture for an amputee by "replaying" the vibrations produced in an artificial limb as it explores a textured surface by electrically stimulating the nerve at the corresponding frequencies. It could also be used for haptic rendering, or producing the tactile feel of a virtual object on a touchscreen (think turning your iPad into a device for reading Braille, or controlling robotic surgery).
"We're trying to build a theory of what makes things feel the way they feel," Bensmaia said. "This is the beginning of a story that's really going to change the way people think about the somatosensory system."
Source: University of Chicago Medical Center