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J Physiol. 1996 Nov 1; 496(Pt 3): 857–871.
PMCID: PMC1160870

Movement illusions evoked by ensemble cutaneous input from the dorsum of the human hand.


1. In this study we tested the hypothesis that ensemble activity in human cutaneous sensory afferents evoked by the stretching of skin over and around the finger joints contributes to the conscious perception of movement of the fingers. 2. In nineteen normal adults, ensembles of cutaneous afferents were activated either by electrical stimulation, delivered through an array of electrodes on the dorsum of the hand and fingers, or by mechanical stretching of the skin over and around the joints. The stretching was applied through an array of threads stuck to the skin, in such a way as to avoid or minimize moving the underlying joints and to avoid applying pressure to underlying tendons and ligaments. Perceived movements were mimicked by voluntary movements of the fingers of the contralateral hand. 3. By way of comparison, kinaesthetic illusions were also evoked by activation of muscle receptors by vibration. 4. Illusions of movement were elicited with each type of stimulus. Electrical stimulation of skin afferents caused clear illusory movements in six out of seventeen subjects (35%), and borderline movement illusions in three out of the same seventeen subjects (total 9/17, 53%). Various other localized skin sensations were also reported. Skin stretch evoked movement illusions in eleven out of nineteen of subjects (58%). In all subjects who received both cutaneous stimuli, twelve out of seventeen (71%) reported some movement sensations with one or other of the stimulation techniques. Vibration tended to be the most reliable stimulus modality, eliciting illusory movements in fourteen out of sixteen subjects (88%). 5. Although the skin stretching technique did cause minute movements of nearby joints in several cases, these were monitored and shown in separate control experiments to be below perceptual threshold, and so the movement illusions could be safely attributed to the cutaneous afferent input evoked by skin stretch. 6. The results support the hypothesis that input from skin stretched during finger movement contributes to the conscious perception of the movement. Vibration-evoked muscle afferent input tended to be more reliable than the skin input in producing kinaesthetic illusions, though comparisons of the relative efficacy of the three techniques must be made with caution.

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Selected References

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