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Brain. 2012 Nov;135(Pt 11):3371-9. doi: 10.1093/brain/aws265.

Parkinson's disease accelerates age-related decline in haptic perception by altering somatosensory integration.

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  • 1Department of Robotics, Brain and Cognitive Sciences, Italian Institute of Technology, Genova 16163, Italy. jkonczak@umn.edu


This study investigated how Parkinson's disease alters haptic perception and the underlying mechanisms of somatosensory and sensorimotor integration. Changes in haptic sensitivity and acuity (the abilities to detect and to discriminate between haptic stimuli) due to Parkinson's disease were systematically quantified and contrasted to the performance of healthy older and young adults. Using a robotic force environment, virtual contours of various curvatures were presented. Participants explored these contours with their hands and indicated verbally whether they could detect or discriminate between two contours. To understand what aspects of sensory or sensorimotor integration are altered by ageing and disease, we manipulated the sensorimotor aspect of the task: the robot either guided the hand along the contour or the participant actively moved the hand. Active exploration relies on multimodal sensory and sensorimotor integration, while passive guidance only requires sensory integration of proprioceptive and tactile information. The main findings of the study are as follows: first, a decline in haptic precision can already be observed in adults before the age of 70 years. Parkinson's disease may lead to an additional decrease in haptic sensitivity well beyond the levels typically seen in middle-aged and older adults. Second, the haptic deficit in Parkinson's disease is general in nature. It becomes manifest as a decrease in sensitivity and acuity (i.e. a smaller perceivable range and a diminished ability to discriminate between two perceivable haptic stimuli). Third, thresholds during both active and passive exploration are elevated, but not significantly different from each other. That is, active exploration did not enhance the haptic deficit when compared to passive hand motion. This implies that Parkinson's disease affects early stages of somatosensory integration that ultimately have an impact on processes of sensorimotor integration. Our results suggest that the known motor problems in Parkinson's disease that are generally characterized as a failure of sensorimotor integration may, in fact, have a sensory origin.

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